Myths and Misconceptions About Parkinson's
Although Parkinson’s disease (PD) is one of the most common neurological disorders, affecting approximately one million people in the United States, there are many myths and misconceptions about the disease.1
Myth: Parkinson’s disease is only a movement-related condition.
The motor symptoms of PD, including tremor, rigidity, impaired balance and bradykinesia (gradual loss of spontaneous movement), are characteristic of the disease; however, there are a number of non-motor symptoms that people with PD may also experience. Non-motor symptoms include:
- REM sleep behavior disorder
- Daytime sleepiness
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing
- Changes to their speech (speaking softly, trouble speaking clearly)
- Urinary incontinence
- Increased sweating
- Increased salivation
- Difficulty focusing
- Difficulty with visual-spatial relations
- Visual hallucinations1,2
Myth: Parkinson’s disease always causes a tremor, and tremors are always a sign of PD.
Tremor is probably the most well-recognized symptom of PD; however, not everyone with PD experiences tremors. PD is highly individualized, appearing with different variations of symptoms and severity in different patients. Tremors can also be caused by other conditions, including stroke, multiple sclerosis, or traumatic brain injury. It is also important to note that the tremor caused by PD is characterized by tremor at rest (shaking when muscles are relaxed) and often begins on one side of the body.3,4
Myth: Parkinson’s disease causes uncontrolled, spontaneous movements.
The uncontrolled movements seen in many patients with PD are called dyskinesia, and the disease itself doesn’t cause them. Dyskinesia is a side effect of the medication levodopa that is often used to treat PD.3
Myth: Parkinson’s disease only affects one part of the brain: the substantia nigra pars compacta.
While the damage to the neurons (nerve cells) in the substantia nigra pars compacta causes the characteristic motor symptoms, like tremors and rigidity, people with PD also experience damage to other areas of the brain, causing assorted motor, cognitive, affective, autonomic and sensory impairments.3,5
Myth: If a person has Parkinson’s disease, it explains any symptom they are experiencing.
Not every symptom experienced by a person who has PD is related to the neurological disease. Some symptoms, like shortness of breath, chest pain, sudden difficulty with speech, or vertigo, are not caused by PD and require immediate medical attention. Other symptoms that are not caused by PD, like fever, may signal an infection.1
Myth: Parkinson’s disease is caused by a genetic mutation.
The cause of PD is not yet known. Researchers believe there are both genetic and external factors that lead to the development of PD, but there is not a single definitive genetic mutation that leads to all cases of PD. Sometimes PD runs in families, which suggests a hereditary factor; however, most cases (~90%) of PD are sporadic, occurring in people without a family history of the disease.2,3 Also, even if a person has a mutation linked to PD, this does not always mean the person will get PD.
Myth: Levodopa, the most commonly used medication to treat Parkinson’s disease, stops working after five years.
Levodopa can effectively help manage the symptoms of PD for decades. While it doesn’t treat all the symptoms of PD, it significantly helps with the motor symptoms that can be disabling for people living with PD.1
Myth: Parkinson’s disease is predictable and follows a similar pattern in all patients.
PD is very unique to each person with the disease, and even an expert physician in PD cannot predict exactly how the disease will progress for an individual diagnosed with PD.1
Myth: Parkinson’s disease is curable.
Although many of the motor symptoms can be alleviated with medication, currently, there is no cure for PD. Researchers continue to explore the causes of the disease in hopes that they can identify ways to stop or slow the progression of PD. Surgery is also an option for some patients to provide deep-brain stimulation, which involves the placement of electrodes in the brain to regulate abnormal brain impulses.3