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Understanding & Diagnosing Parkinson?s Disease

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Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative movement disorder that affects the nervous system. Because it develops gradually, you may at first dismiss the early symptoms, such as slight tremor in one hand. But while a tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson’s disease, the disorder also commonly causes other symptoms, including a lack of facial expression, slurred speech, stiffness, and/or slowed movement. These symptoms generally begin on just one side of the body and slowly move to the other side as well.

What Exactly Is Parkinson?s?

Parkinson’s disease is a condition in which particular nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain break down or die. The majority of the symptoms a patient exhibits are caused by the loss of the neurons that produce dopamine, an essential chemical messenger in the brain. When dopamine levels decrease in the brain, it leads to abnormal neuron activity, which in turn causes the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

How is Parkinson?s Diagnosed?

Symptoms of Parkinson?s disease begin very slowly and are similar to other conditions that affect the nervous system. It is estimated that in its early stages nearly 40% of people with Parkinson?s Disease may remain undiagnosed, and as many as 25% may be misdiagnosed. While there is no actual test to confirm Parkinson?s disease, there are some procedures and assessments that can help with a diagnosis. Doctors may use any combination of the following tests to help diagnose a patient with Parkinson?s.

  1. Physical and neurological exams. A neurologist will review the patient?s symptoms and medical history, conducting a thorough examination including:
  • Sight
  • Speech
  • Hearing
  • Reflexes
  • Muscle tone
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Signs of tremor
  • Movement, including walking and rising from a chair
  1. Lab tests. A doctor may perform blood tests to rule out other possible causes of the patient?s symptoms. These tests usually include those for thyroid disorders and vitamin deficiencies.
  2. Brain imaging. Imaging tests of the brain can be used to evaluate how the patient?s brain is working and find issues related to both activity and function. While none of these tests are definitive, they do give the doctor important information to use in making a final diagnosis.
  • A DaTscan uses a small amount of a radioactive drug and a single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanner to find out how much dopamine is in the brain.
  • A PET scan, or positron emission tomography scan, is used to assess activity and function of brain regions involved in movement.
  • A CT scan, or computed tomography scan, uses X-rays and computers to create images of the inside of the brain and body to look for signs of Parkinson?s disease and rule out alternate causes of symptoms such as stroke or tumor.
  • A MRI scan, or magnetic resonance imaging scan, may be used to examine the structure of the brain, usually to rule out alternate causes of symptoms such as stroke or brain tumor.

Because Parkinson?s is hard to diagnose and presents itself with progressive symptoms, don?t be surprised if a doctor decides to simply monitor the patient to see if their symptoms remain the same or worsen over time before making a diagnosis.

Luckily, today individuals can live a long and happy life with Parkinson?s, and there are resources and support to help patients and their loved ones in dealing with the disease. Specialty Care Services also offers a number of in-home care options to support those who either have Parkinson?s disease or are caring for someone who does.

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