Recognize Parkinson’s symptoms earlier for longer, happier lives

April 15, 2014

While Parkinson’s disease is incurable, early detection of symptoms may lead to a better quality of life.

Tremors, twitching, stooping and a masked face are commonly known signs of advanced Parkinson’s disease. But what about earlier warning signs? Is there a way to detect the disease before these drastic symptoms develop?

While the disease is incurable, early detection of symptoms may lead to a better quality of life. The Texas A&M Health Science Center’s College of Nursing discusses some of these lesser-known early warning signs.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that develops when the brain stops making the chemical dopamine. Dopamine aids in body movement and also helps keep moods stabilized and elevated. While the disease is incurable, medications can help replace dopamine and provide some assistance with managing Parkinson’s symptoms, but the disease gradually worsens over time.

Researchers have become increasingly focused on the identification of non-motor symptoms for the earliest detection. It is believed that the earliest signs of Parkinson’s occur in a part of the nervous system which affects non-motor symptoms.

“Early detection gives patients with Parkinson’s disease the greatest chance at a longer, healthier life,” said Colleen Neal, M.S., RN, assistant professor at the TAMHSC College of Nursing. Neal teaches community health and researches aging health and long-term care. Her experience includes assessing and assisting patients with Parkinson’s disease through her career with the Aging Services Department for the State of Oklahoma. She notes that the risk for Parkinson’s increases with age due to nerve damage from genetic or environmental factors.

While no single one of these symptoms indicates that a person has Parkinson’s, if several of these symptoms are present an appointment should be made to speak to a physician. Here are some potential, early warning signs of Parkinson’s disease.

1. Loss of smell. Difficulty smelling strongly scented foods like dill pickles or licorice may be an indication of Parkinson’s development.

2. Difficulty sleeping. Thrashing, sudden movements and falling out of bed while deeply asleep could be indicators.

3. Constipation. Difficulty moving bowels without straining (when no other cause such as diet or medicine) could be a reason to speak with a physician.

4. Small handwriting. A sudden shrinking in the size of handwriting can be an indicator. While handwriting can gradually change with age, this particular symptom of Parkinson’s occurs quite suddenly.

5. Choking, speaking softly and difficulty swallowing. All three are due to loss of control of mouth and throat muscles.

6. “Freezing, falling backwards, and asymmetrical arm movement. Feet can feel “stuck to the floor” and result in a backwards fall. This often occurs after standing-up, when turning, and without warning. Other indicators can be stiffness that does not go away as a person moves and arms that do not swing symmetrically when walking.

— Katherine Hancock

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