Early signs of Parkinson’s disease: making the diagnosis

Early signs of  Parkinson’s  disease: making the diagnosis

Nitin K Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10065


Well it is the start of a new year and a new decade. Welcome twenty ten. I wish all the readers of my blog a very happy new year. Recently I saw a patient in my office and he shall be the subject of my post. He came to see because of his tremor. Actually I should not say he came to see me, the patient infact felt there was nothing wrong with him.

Dr. Sethi, I have noticed a tremor in my right hand for the past 3 months. It does not bother me. I feel fine. It is my wife who wants me to come and get this checked out” he said.

As I examined him I realised his ” hand shakes” problem was something more sinister as I found tell tale signs suggestive of Parkinson’s disease. That is what I shall discuss here, how does one go about making the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease ? What are the points in the history and examination that make me as a doctor consider this diagnosis?

Parkinson’s disease may start off very innocuously. All my patient had noticed was that for the past3 months he had a tremor in his right hand. The tremor did not bother him and did not interfere with any activity of daily living such as writing, getting dressed, eating and so forth.  He in fact would not have sought a neurological consultation if his wife had not insisted.  That said and done, there are certain characteristics of the tremor which can aid in the diagnosis. The classical tremor described with Parkinson’s disease is what is called a resting tremor. Now pray what does that mean? Simple the tremor is most prominent when the hands are rest. Let me explain with the aid of an example. While I was talking to my patient and eliciting his medical history, my visual attention was focussed at his hands which were at rest on his lap. I noticed his right hand to have a tremor, the tremor became more prominent when he was distracted. If I asked him to look at his right hand, he could stop the tremor for a few seconds but then the tremor came back. He did not have  a tremor in his left hand or in his legs. When the arms were extended (held up in front of him), the tremor  abated.

So point number 1:  Sporadic Parkinson’s disease usually starts of in the sixth to seventh decade of life. The initial presentation may be quite subtle with only a mild tremor. The tremor initially is asymmetrical (that is it may only be in one hand) and classically it is a resting tremor (most prominent when the hands are completely at rest). The tremor becomes less prominent when the hands are doing something (in motion) and completely abates when the patient falls asleep. Remember the tremor at least initially during the disease course may not be bothersome for the patient and may not impair his quality of life. Hence the patient may not seek attention and the diagnosis may be delayed.

There are some other early signs of Parkinson’s disease. On close inspection I was able to document them in my patient too. When he spoke to me, his face lacked the usual emotions. What do I mean by that. Well when we speak our face show a variety of emotions, we frown, we roll our eyes, sometimes our eyes smile and so forth. A Parkinson’s disease patient has what is called a “mask-like” face-there is a paucity of normal facial expressions.

So point number 2.  Mask like face

Parkinson’s disease patients have a characteristic gait. For want of better words, they walk stiffly. The classical gait is described as bent forward, walking with short quick steps (as if they are going to topple over) and the arms are held by the side (they do not have the usual arm swing).

So point number 3. Gait (They walk funny!!!)

So if you or any of your loved ones show these signs, make sure you get a neurological opinion. Your doctor shall be able to elicit further points in the history and examination which shall help secure the diagnosis of sporadic Parkinson’s disease. Remember the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease remains a clinical diagnosis (one made by a doctor after history and examination). There are no confirmatory tests (at least none that are used in the office setting).




Parkinson’s disease: when to treat and how?

Recently I was asked by someone when should we treat a patient with Parkinson’s disease, early on in the disease course or later when the clinical symptoms are more florid? As you know Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative condition characterized by tremor (resting tremor of the limbs, see my post on tremors http://braindiseases.info), rigidity (stiffness), bradykinesia (patients have less spontaneous movements) and a characteristic disturbance of gait and posture (patients walk stooped forward and their balance is off, making them more prone to falls).

As you can well imagine all these symptoms do not start off all at once. Infact the onset of Parkinson’s disease is quite insidious and generally asymmetrical. In its earliest stages, all the patient may have is a unilateral (one hand) tremor. Later as time goes by and the disease progresses the symptoms become more florid and the bardykinesia and disturbance of gait and posture appear.

So that brings us to the question of my post, just when do we start treating these patients? Should we treat them early or should we treat them in the later stages?

There is no good answer to this question. One concern which has been raised is that if you treat patients with Parkinson’s disease with levodopa/ syndopa (the combination is called Sinemet in The United States), early on in the disease course, the drug itself may hasten the progression of the disease (the thinking behind this is the concern that levodopa may increase the breakdown of dopamine secreting cells in the basal ganglia).

On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that early treatment is better because it prevents the compensatory change in hardwiring which occur in the brain in the face of decreasing dopamine (some of the neurons such as that of the subthalamic nucleus become overactive in the face of decreasing dopamine secretion and this later on leads to more problems such as the on-off phenomena).

So what is the answer? I think a patient should be treated when he devlops symptoms that start bothering him or interfere with his functioning and activities of daily living. If that occurs early in the disease course, so be it, he warrants treatment. Nowdays apart from levodopa/syndopa (Sinemet) there are many other drugs which can be used to treat the disease especially in the early phases. These drugs ( dopamine agonists like Requip (Ropinirole) and Mirapex (Pramipexole) and selegine) are less stronger than levodopa/syndopa combination but are thought to have less “neurotoxicity” and hence are preferred to be used in the early stages of the disease.

Your doctor shall help you navigate these questions. Have a good weekend everyone. It is Saturday morning here in NYC as I pen this, I think I shall go for a run.

Personal Regards,

Nitin Sethi, MD

Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a relatively common neurodegenerative disease. It was first described by James Parkinson in his now classical essay titled ” The Shaking Palsy”. James Parkinson was an astute observer and his longitudinal description of the disease which now bears his name was on the basis of just a single patient.

Like other neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinson’s disease starts in the later age groups (60’s and onwards). Sometimes it may start in the younger age groups especially if there is a family history of the disease. This is referred to as Familial Parkinson’s Disease.

Typical Parkinson’s disease has a clinical triad consisting of:

a) rigidity (patient’s are rigid–when you passively move their limbs you experience increased resistance. Rigidity is a condition in which the tone of the body is increased. Tone refers to the resistance offered to passive movement of a limb across the joint)

b) bradykinesia or akinesia: as the name suggests, this means that the patient’s are bradykinetic. They have paucity of spontaneous movements, when they walk they do not have the characteristic arm swing which describes the human walk.

c) resting tremor: Parkinson’s disease (PD) patient’s have a characteristic tremor in their hands and feet. The tremor is a resting tremor meaning that it is most prominent when they are relaxed and their arms are at complete rest (when you walk, your arms are at rest by the side of your body and the tremor can be clearly seen).


Other features of Parkinson’s disease (PD):

d) PD patient’s have a typical disturbance of gait and posture. They seem off balance and are prone to falls. They walk bend forward in short quick steps (as if chasing something). This characteristic gait of PD patient’s has been referred to as festinating gait. If you accidently push a PD patient to the side or backward or forward, they are unable to compensate and may fall down. Falls and the disturbance in gait and posture is an important cause of morbidity in PD patient’s. When PD patient’s turn they do not turn in one smooth motion rather thay turn with small steps.

e) PD patient’s have a mask like face. They do not have the characteristic facial expressions which so define when humans talk. They may not blink while speaking ( sort of staring look), do not smile or frown.

f) PD patient’s may notice a change in their writing. Typically the hand writing becomes smaller and smaller and more illegible. This is referred to as micrographia.

g) The voice of PD patient’s is monotonous and lacks the variations in the pitch and tone which defines human speech.


A point to note here is that unlike Alzheimer’s disease, PD patient’s usually have no impairment in memory at least in the early to middle stages of the disease. Later on in the disease course, they may develop cognitive impairments, this condition is referred to as Parkinson’s disease dementia (PDD) or dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease.