Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;59(8):2169-2170

See related article on Parkinson's disease.

What is Parkinson's disease?

In Parkinson's disease, the brain cells that control your muscles are damaged. This causes symptoms like these:

  • Shaking, usually your hands, while they are relaxed

  • Stiff arms and legs

  • Slow movements

  • Able to walk only in a slow shuffle

  • Problems keeping your balance

Early in the disease, you may feel anxious and have trouble sleeping. You may drag a foot while walking. The fingers of one hand may shake when you aren't doing anything.

Parkinson's disease is more common in people over 50 years of age, but sometimes it happens in people in their 20s. It's a little more common in men than in women. It usually develops very slowly.

What causes Parkinson's disease?

Parkinson's disease may have a number of causes. It may be inherited, or it might be caused by chemicals in the environment.

How serious is Parkinson's disease?

Most people who have Parkinson's disease can keep living a productive life. Some people have more problems than others. You'll have to see your doctor regularly, take good care of yourself and take your medicines as your doctor tells you.

How does my doctor know I have Parkinson's disease?

Other diseases have some of the same symptoms as Parkinson's disease. Your doctor will examine you to look for what is causing your symptoms. The doctor may want you to have some tests to be sure you have Parkinson's disease and not something else. In addition, if the medicines used to treat Parkinson's disease don't help you, you may not have this disease. If this happens, your doctor may want you to have more tests or go to a neurologist (a doctor who specializes in nerve diseases).

How is Parkinson's disease treated?

At first you might not take any medicine at all. Later, when the symptoms keep you from doing what you want to do, you can take one of several medicines. One medicine might be levodopa-carbidopa (brand name: Sinemet), and there are other drugs that can help you.

It's important to take good care of yourself. Try to eat healthy foods and exercise every day. If your problems cause you to be depressed, talk to your doctor.

What if my medicine stops working or I feel worse?

If your medicine stops helping you, see your doctor. Don't take extra medicine—that won't help. And don't stop taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

If you start to feel worse, tell your doctor. It helps if you write down how you feel and when. For example, do you feel worse first thing in the morning? Or after eating? Or before you go to bed? Keeping a written record for a few days will help your doctor decide how to change your medicine.

What are some side effects of the medicines for Parkinson's disease?

The medicines for Parkinson's disease have different side effects. You might be dizzy or sleepy. You might have nausea, headache or constipation. You might even get confused or have hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices that aren't really there). Your family may notice these problems before you do. Tell your doctor if you or your family members notice any of these problems when you start taking a medicine for Parkinson's disease.

Can anything else help Parkinson's disease?

Yes. Special injections (shots) might help with some muscle problems. When medicine can't control symptoms such as tremor, sometimes surgery can help. Your doctor can help you decide if surgery will help you.

Where can I get more information about Parkinson's disease?

The following groups offer information about Parkinson's disease:

  • American Parkinson Disease Association, Inc.

  • 1250 Hylan Blvd., Suite 4B

  • Staten Island, NY 10305

  • 1-718-981-8001 or 1-800-223-2732

  • Internet:

  • Parkinson's Disease Foundation, Inc.

  • 710 W. 158th St.

  • New York, NY 10032

  • 1-212-923-4780 or 1-800-457-6676

  • Internet:

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