What Is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological condition that can affect people from all walks of life. Parkinson's is a condition where a neurotransmitter called dopamine is not produced at adequate levels in the brain.

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About Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological condition that can affect people from all walks of life.  It is a manageable condition. Importantly – no two people with Parkinson’s will experience the condition the same way, so everyone’s experience and treatment will be unique to them. Symptoms will continue to change, often from day to day, and throughout the course of your life. Discovering the right medications, complementary therapies, supports and ways to stay independent and engaged in your work, family and community will enhance your quality of life with Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is a condition where a neurotransmitter called dopamine is not produced at adequate levels in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that relay messages between cells in your brain.  

Dopamine is mainly produced by special cells deep inside your brain, it is these cells that die in Parkinson’s. Dopamine is used by many areas of your brain but it is particularly important in controlling movement. Because of this impact on movement Parkinson’s is classified as Movement Disorder but anyone with Parkinson’s will tell you that it impacts many non-movement functions as well.        

Parkinson’s is quite common and latest research conservatively estimates indicates that more than 80,000 Australians are living with Parkinson’s.  The average age of diagnosis is 65 years.  Younger people can be diagnosed with Parkinson’s too and this is referred to as Young Onset Parkinson’s.  Around 20% of people living with Parkinson’s are of working age.

It is not easy to diagnose Parkinson’s. There are no laboratory tests (such as a blood test or brain scan), so it is important that the diagnosis is made by a specialist, such as a neurologist based on clinical signs and symptoms. The specialist will examine for any physical signs of Parkinson’s and take a detailed history of symptoms.

What causes Parkinson’s?

Currently, there is no known cause of understanding of why a person develops Parkinson’s.  There are many theories as to the causes and it is generally thought that multiple factors are responsible. Possible causes or contributing factors may include genetic changes, environmental factors, oxidative stress or a combination of these.  

Through research, our understanding of the possible causes of Parkinson’s is increasing all of the time.

What causes Parkinson’s Symptoms?

The underlying cause of the symptoms of Parkinson’s relates to a decline in the production of a chemical in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, that allows messages to be passed between cells in the brain. Many of the cells which produce dopamine are in the Substantia Nigra in the Basal Ganglia which is located in the middle of the brain and it is these cells that are reduced in Parkinson’s. This lack of dopamine means people can have difficulty controlling their movements and moving freely and it can also impact on other body systems such as your sense of smell, bowel, thinking and mood.

Symptoms

Parkinson’s is categorized by clinicians as a “movement disorder” and symptoms may include muscle rigidity, tremor, postural instability and bradykinesia (slowness of movement).  Many people think of tremor in Parkinson’s but in around 30% of cases tremor is not present.

Parkinson’s doesn’t just affect movement. Non-motor symptoms such as pain, sensory changes, changes in the gastrointestinal system, depression and problems with memory, thinking and sleep can also occur and have an impact on the day to day life of the person with Parkinson’s.

Progression of Parkinson’s

Each person is affected differently and the rate of progression varies greatly between individuals. Usually the symptoms of Parkinson’s develop slowly and gradually progress over time. Every Parkinson’s patient is different and will have a different combination of symptoms, different levels of intensity and will progress at a different rate.

Parkinson’s usually doesn’t directly cause people to die and it is possible to live with Parkinson’s for a long time, although symptoms do get worse over time.

Treatments

There is currently no known cure. However, there are many treatments available that can allow a person with Parkinson’s to lead a fulfilling and productive life. Treatments can assist in managing your symptoms and providing a high quality of life for many years to come. 

Working with your Health Care Team

Information provided on this website and in information sheets is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient and their health care professionals.  It is important that you discuss any issues or concerns you have about your Parkinson’s with the doctors, nurses and other health professionals who support and care for you.

You are not alone – we are in this together.

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