Parkinson's Disease

UW Health's Movement Disorders Program based at University Hospital treats patients with Parkinson's disease.


What is Parkinson's disease?

  • Parkinson's disease (PD) is a gradually progressive brain disorder that causes problems with movement (known as motor symptoms) and can also lead to changes in bowel and bladder function, blood pressure, mood, sleep and cognition (known as nonmotor symptoms).
  • Common motor symptoms, like changes in handwriting, difficulty buttoning buttons, or a shuffling walk, result from movements being too slow and small.
  • Many patients also develop excess movement in the form of a rest tremor of one or more parts of the body.
  • Parkinson's disease symptoms and rate of progression can vary quite a bit from one person to the next. 

What causes Parkinson's disease?


The cause of Parkinson's disease is not fully understood at this time. We know that patients with Parkinson's disease have early loss of brain cells that produce a chemical called dopamine, which is important for communication between brain regions involved in movement. Research is underway to understand what causes this early dopamine cell loss.


Parkinson's Disease Risk Factors


While the exact cause of Parkinson's disease is not known, several risk factors have been identified.

  • The most important risk factor for Parkinson's disease is age. Parkinson's disease incidence increases with age, and affects approximately 1 percent of people over age 60.
  • In young-onset patients who develop symptoms before age 50, genetic risk factors may play a larger role. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of patients have an affected first-degree family member, and there are some genes that are associated with a much higher risk of developing Parkinson's disease. 
  • Exposure to some pesticides and toxins can also increase the risk of developing Parkinson's disease.
  • Most specialists believe that Parkinson's disease is caused by a complex interaction of age, genetic predisposition, and environmental exposures over a lifetime.

How is Parkinson's disease diagnosed?


Parkinson's disease is a clinical diagnosis. This means that there is no specific blood test or scan that can confirm Parkinson's disease. Clinicians base their diagnoses on the patient's physical signs and symptoms, response to treatment, progression over time, and on ruling out other conditions that can mimic Parkinson's disease. Slow or small movements (bradykinesia) must be present, along with a rest tremor, muscle rigidity, and/or problems with maintaining balance. Your provider may order a brain scan or blood tests to help rule out other conditions that could mimic Parkinson's disease.


How is Parkinson's disease treated?


Treatment of Parkinson's disease includes a combination of medication, exercise and therapy, and lifestyle modifications. While exercise is the most important component of the treatment regimen, medications are also necessary when symptoms begin to interfere with daily function.


Medications are chosen with the individual patient's needs, goals and risk of side effects in mind. Many of the drugs used in treating Parkinson's disease work to boost the levels of dopamine in the brain, thereby improving the brain's ability to control movement. 




Resources for Parkinson's Disease

The Psychological Impact of Parkinson's Disease