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The Secret Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

User Category: BlogOn: June 5, 2013

When you hear the term “Parkinson’s Disease”, a general image comes to mind: An older person afflicted with devastating tremors, stiffness, and a pervasive loss of motor control. However, the true picture of Parkinsonism is much more complex. According to various estimates by the National Institutes of Health and the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, PD affects between 500,000 to 1 million Americans, and an estimated 4.1 million people worldwide.  While motor symptoms are the trademark of Parkinsonism, PD sufferers deal with a host of additional non-motor symptoms ranging from sleep and mood disorders to pain and loss of smell. Being less noticeable to the naked eye many patients silently with these often-called “secret” or “invisible” symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.  Dr. Melissa Nirenberg, a physician from Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell College in New York, remarks, “[Invisible symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease] are the worst symptoms for patients and they're often overlooked by family members and physicians because you can't see them.” Here are 5 secret symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease every family caregiver and health care professional should know: 

  • Loss of smell – Early in the course of the disease, many people with PD report a loss of olfaction or sense of smell. This happens slowly without the patient noticing and may occur several years before diagnosis. Difficulty detecting and discerning different odors is typically reported.
  • R.E.M sleep disturbances – Sleep problems are common for many people with Parkinson’s Disease. This can include difficulty falling and staying asleep (insomnia) as well as a more serious sleep problem known as R.E.M sleep behavior disorder. People with RBD experience vivid dreams and nightmares, often acting out their dreams causing self-inflicted injuries or hurting a partner by kicking, choking, or punching.  In later stages of the disease, patients report leg stiffness at nighttime, frequent urination, and (no surprise) daytime sleepiness and fatigue. 
  • Urinary incontinence – Problems with the autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious or automatic bodily functions (heart rate, respiration, etc), are more pronounced for persons with advanced Parkinsonism. As a result, bladder control and urinary incontinence can be an issue for PD sufferers. Lightheadedness upon standing and dizziness often occur  due to poor blood pressure regulation. Trouble swallowing, abnormal sweating, and sexual dysfunction are common as well.
  • Mood and mental problems – Because PD is related to alterations in brain chemicals, depression affects nearly half of those with Parkinson’s Disease and worsens with the progressing course of the illness. Common symptoms include loss of interest in activities, and decreased pleasures; panic attacks and excessive worry are also common.
  • Pain – Over 40% of persons with Parkinson’s Disease report painful sensations across the body including, stabbing, burning, and tingling.  Pain often accompanies the motor symptoms and can be reported in different areas such as the face, abdomen, and joints