Why Is Parkinson’s Commonly Misdiagnosed?

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is difficult to diagnose because symptoms vary so widely between patients. Although my dad's diagnosis was relatively straightforward, at the beginning, we wondered if his tremors could be related to some other disease.

Since there are dozens of diseases that exhibit some of the same symptoms as PD, finding the right diagnosis can be a lengthy and difficult process.

But reaching the appropriate diagnosis is important because it allows you to treat those symptoms more effectively since the causes for each condition vary.

As time progressed, my dad became convinced that it was actually Parkinson's. And having several doctors evaluate his symptoms helped us to find some answers. But the process isn't this simple for everyone.

How it is Diagnosed

There is no single test that allows physicians to determine whether or not someone has Parkinson’s disease. And many of the diseases that exhibit similar symptoms are the same way.1

At the moment, you can’t take a scan or a blood test to confirm you have Parkinson’s. There’s no simple diagnosis. Because of this, when many patients begin noticing symptoms, it may take a while to reach the diagnosis.1

Key symptoms

Doctors commonly look for 4 key symptoms during the diagnosis. People with Parkinson’s most commonly exhibit stiffness, tremors, bradykinesia, and instability.2

During my Dad's diagnosis, he exhibited stiffness and tremors. But the other symptoms didn't come until much later. When you're trying to reach a diagnosis with only some of the information, it makes sense that there could be a misdiagnosis.

Some key observations can help physicians to make the right diagnosis. In Parkinson’s, symptoms commonly start unilaterally but they become bilateral later in the disease, for example.

Similar conditions

There are many different diseases that can be confused with PD. Among them are Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), multiple system atrophy (MSA).3

It’s important to seek an accurate diagnosis early during the progression of the disease, because treatment may equip patients to handle the progression more effectively. Having the right tools may give you the best quality of life.

PSP looks very similar to Parkinson's while it’s in the early stages. The disease commonly involves symptoms like dysphagia (swallowing difficulties), falling, speech challenges, and more.3

MSA involves symptoms that are similar to those that are found in PD. But it usually involves additional symptoms like dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system. In the same way that there is not test to confirm Parkinson’s, MSA is difficult to label.3

Additional conditions that exhibit symptoms that are found in Parkinson’s include: essential tremor, Peripheral Neuropathy, Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, dementia with Lewy Bodies, and more.3,5

I'm grateful that my dad didn't have to go through the process of accepting a misdiagnosis, only to discover that it isn't accurate. But I hope that future people with Parkinson's have an easier time distinguishing between diseases.

Avoiding a Misdiagnosis

There are a number of things that you can do to avoid a misdiagnosis. If you’re wondering whether or not you may have a disease like Parkinson’s, be sure to consult a neurologist. And don’t be afraid to consult several neurologists or doctors.

My dad saw 3 different neurologists, and they disagreed on his diagnosis when he first began seeing symptoms. Misdiagnoses occur most frequently early in the disease because symptoms are just beginning to surface. And those symptoms tend to set themselves apart as they progress.

Keep in mind that PD may overlap with another illness. It’s possible to have multiple diseases at the same time. Patience can go a long way.

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