What Is Idiopathic Parkinson's Disease?

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Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder that hinders the brain’s ability to control movement and other related functions. The term "idiopathic" refers to an unknown cause. In idiopathic Parkinson's disease, it is unclear what causes the disease, although researchers suspect changes in brain cells and neurotransmitters may play a role.

The most common form of parkinsonism, idiopathic Parkinson’s can lead to tremors, rigidity, and slow movement. Though the condition typically worsens over time, treatment is available to help manage symptoms.

Learn more about idiopathic Parkinson’s disease, the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

Parkinson's Disease

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Symptoms

People with idiopathic Parkinson's disease usually have movement and muscle-related symptoms, as well as balance and coordination issues.

People affected by the disease may experience symptoms such as:

  • Bradykinesia (slow movement)
  • Tremors (rhythmic shaking movements)
  • Rigidity (stiffness of the arms or legs)
  • Balance and coordination problems
  • Changes in speech
  • Muscle spasms or cramps
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Changes in posture
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Issues with urination

The onset of these symptoms can be frightening. A person may start experiencing symptoms throughout the body or just on one side.

Over time, symptoms may slowly worsen and begin to affect the whole body.

Idiopathic Parkinson's acts on the nervous system, so people living with the disease may observe changes in essential functions such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.

Depression and Anxiety in Parkinson's

People with Parkinson's disease have high rates of depression, anxiety, and stress. If you or someone you know is struggling with their disease or diagnosis, help is available. The Parkinson's Foundation offers resources and support, including support groups to help connect you with other patients.

Causes

The cause of idiopathic Parkinson’s disease is unknown. However, damage to a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, and disruption to the key neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, can lead to the development of symptoms.

These brain functions are defined as:

  • Substantia nigra: Critical for brain functioning, the substantia nigra helps regulate motor skills and movement. Research indicates that when cells in the substantia nigra deteriorate, neurotransmitters are impacted, which creates issues with muscle movement and coordination.
  • Dopamine: This neurotransmitter is vital for transmitting signals between the brain and the body to support motor skills. People with Parkinson’s have lower levels of dopamine, making controlling and moving muscles challenging.  
  • Norepinephrine: Works to communicate signals between nerve cells and governs critical functions like heart rate. A decrease in this neurotransmitter causes symptoms such as changes in blood pressure, digestion, and heart rate. 

The specific cause of Parkinson’s disease is being studied. Researchers are also examining the impact that genetic predisposition or environmental factors might have in the onset of the condition.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing Parkinson’s disease can be challenging, so working with a neurologist (a medical doctor who specializes in the nerves and nervous system), and other specialists can be beneficial.

Because some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease mimic other medical conditions, it's important to discuss symptoms early with your healthcare provider so they can rule out other diseases or forms of Parkinson's. 

Unfortunately, there is not a single or definitive test for identifying idiopathic Parkinson’s. A healthcare provider will collect a full medical history and conduct a physical examination to check and monitor symptoms.

Imaging tests may be used to rule out other conditions, including:

Once a healthcare provider determines a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, planning for treatment can begin.

Prevalence of Parkinson's Disease

Approximately 0.3% of the population has Parkinson’s disease. With onset being between ages 55 and 65, about 1%–2% of people over the age of 60 are living with the condition. The incidence of Parkinson’s increases with age, with the highest rate occurring in those between 85 and 89 years old.

Treatment

Treatment for Parkinson’s disease may look different for everyone. Patients, healthcare providers, and specialists will collaborate to determine the best course of treatment for each individual based on their medical history, symptoms, and overall health.

There are a variety of treatment options that may be needed in combination to manage symptoms, including:

  • Medication: Levodopa and dopaminergic medications work by increasing dopamine levels in an effort to tame symptoms related to movement and motor skills. Research indicates that 40%–50% of overall Parkinson's patients and 80% of people with idiopathic Parkinson's taking Levodopa experience improvement in symptoms.
  • Exercise and physical therapy (PT): Gentle movement and targeting specific muscle groups can increase strength and help with balance and coordination.
  • Occupational therapy (OT): OT can restore a sense of independence by teaching individuals how to care for themselves and function to the best of their ability based on their particular symptoms.
  • Supplements: Vitamins and antioxidants may have properties that can mitigate risk of Parkinson’s, but you should consult with your healthcare provider before taking any supplements to determine how they will affect your treatment plan.
  • Psychotherapy: Addressing your diagnosis and the feelings of anxiety and depression that may accompany the disease can help.

Ultimately, because Parkinson’s can be difficult to manage, especially as it progresses, treatment may vary and change to meet a patient’s needs. A medical care team may introduce new medications, adjust dosages, or add additional treatments like psychotherapy or physical and occupational therapy to help patients operate safely and independently as long as they are able.

A Word From Verywell

A diagnosis of idiopathic Parkinson’s disease may seem scary and overwhelming, especially when you consider the physical and lifestyles changes it means. Though there is no cure for idiopathic Parkinson’s, treatment is available to support individuals in maintaining a sense of independence for as long as possible. A combination of medications and therapies can help you manage your quality of life. Finding a specialist is the first step in getting a diagnosis and developing a treatment plan to meet your individual needs.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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