Parkinson's disease

In Canada, nearly 100,000 people have Parkinson's disease. Find out how to recognize the symptoms of this neurodegenerative disease to treat it quickly and limit its impact on your quality of life or that of a loved one.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disease, which means that specific cells of the brain become gradually destroyed. In the case of Parkinson’s, the destroyed cells are the ones that produce dopamine, a chemical that plays an important role in movement control. The disease therefore causes a gradual loss in the ability to control certain types of movement.

Symptoms appear gradually and worsen over time. Parkinson’s progresses at a different rate for each person. The disease isn't fatal, but at an advanced stage, major complications, such as pneumonia, can cause death.

The exact cause of this disease is still unknown.

Who can get Parkinson's disease?

Men and women are at equal risk of getting Parkinson's disease. It most often appears around the age of 60, and the risk increases with age. In rare cases, the early onset form of the disease can affect people in their 40s.

Parkinson's symptoms

Parkinson's disease is characterized by 3 major symptoms. At least 2 of these symptoms must be present for Parkinson's to be diagnosed.

  • Tremors, which occur when muscles are at rest and not during voluntary movements. For most people, hand tremors are the first sign of the disease. At a more advanced stage, the arms and legs may also have tremors. Approximately one quarter of people with Parkinson's don’t get tremors.
  • Rigidity or stiffness in the limbs or other parts of the body. As the disease progresses, stiffness increases and makes movement more difficult.
  • Slowed movements, called “bradykinesia.”

Other symptoms are also possible:

  • A change in gait, such as reduced arm swings while walking or a slight dragging of the feet.
  • Posture changes.
  • Balance problems and slowed reflexes to remain balanced, which increases the risk of falling.
  • A lack of facial expressions and decreased blinking.
  • Difficulty swallowing and the feeling of having too much saliva.
  • Changes in taste and smell.
  • Decreased voice volume, problems enunciating, or a monotone voice.
  • Small, cramped handwriting.
  • Symptoms of depression or anxiety.
  • Decreased blood pressure (hypotension).
  • Hot flashes, constipation or abundant sweating.
  • Fatigue and sleep problems.
  • Sexual disorders.
  • Signs of dementia. Dementia happens when parts of the brain don't work as they should, particularly the areas responsible for memory and concentration. This can lead to behaviour disorders and problems functioning around other people.

At the start of the disease, Parkinson's signs are sometimes confused with the effects of normal aging.

Parkinson’s treatment

Parkinson's disease is a chronic disease that progresses over time. For the moment, no drug or procedure can cure it. However, treatments are available to relieve symptoms, such as stiffness, slow movements or tremors. Treatment will help you continue your usual activities and maintain a good quality of life for many years.

Different classes of medications can be prescribed depending on the stage of the disease, your symptoms, your age or other factors. Since Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, treatment must be adapted as symptoms change. The medications your doctor prescribes may also change over time.

If you take medication, you need to take your prescribed dose and never change a dose without consulting your doctor. If you stop your medication, your symptoms will come back. If you experience side effects, your pharmacist or doctor can give you advice and adjust your therapy.

Physiotherapy is also an important part of Parkinson's treatment. An adapted exercise and therapy program will help you improve your balance, muscle endurance, and mobility.

Surgical procedures are also possible if the disease doesn’t respond well to medication and if the symptoms are severe and very disabling.

Other measures will also help you maintain a good quality of life:

  • Stay active in keeping with your energy levels.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Learn to manage stress.
  • Learn tips to make your daily activities easier and to avoid falls.
  • Make sure you get support from your family, friends, co-workers, or resources in your community.
  • Talk to your doctor about any professional help that you can get for your needs, such as occupational therapy, physiotherapy, or speech therapy.

You must always consult your pharmacist before taking over-the-counter drugs or natural health products, as some can aggravate Parkinson's symptoms or interact with other medications. Your pharmacist can also help if you have questions about Parkinson's disease.

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