Shaky Hands: Is It a Sign of Parkinson's Disease?

Everyone slows down a little bit as they get older, but how do you know when your shaky hands or stiff muscles cross the line into a movement disorder, such as Parkinson's disease or essential tremor?

“Movement disorders involve having trouble controlling your movements,” neurologist Camilla Kilbane, MD, says.“It can be too much or too little movement.

“If you have stiffness, slowness or are shaking, you definitely need to see your doctor,” she says. “Everyone slows down somewhat with age, but if it’s more than usual, you should make an appointment.”

Warning Signs of Parkinson's Disease

Nine early warning signs of Parkinson’s disease, according to Dr. Kilbane, are:

  1. A shaking limb, chin and/or lip
  2. Stiffness of the muscles
  3. Slowness and difficulty in movement as well as walking
  4. Smaller handwriting
  5. Stooped or hunched posture
  6. Soft, low or hoarse voice
  7. Masked or serious face
  8. Loss of sense of smell
  9. Acting out dreams
  10. Constipation

It’s important not to jump to conclusions about your health or diagnosis if you or a loved one experiences some of these symptoms, but you should make your physician aware of them, Dr. Kilbane says.

Parkinson's Disease Causes

Many people associate Parkinson’s disease with dementia, but Dr. Kilbane says a decline in brain function isn’t a foregone conclusion.

“There’s a higher percentage of dementia among Parkinson’s patients than in the general population, but it does not always lead to dementia,” she says.

No one is sure what causes Parkinson’s, but doctors know that advanced age increases the risk and believe a combination of genes and environment are also at play. There are also environmental risk factors, such as drinking well water or being exposed to certain pesticides.

Usually a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or other movement disorders is made by a neurologist. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may encourage you to exercise and, if needed, may prescribe medications.

Nearly 10 million people live with Parkinson’s disease worldwide, making it the second most-common neurodegenerative condition behind Alzheimer’s. Nearly the same number live with essential tremor.

Neither Parkinson’s nor essential tremor, which both fall under the category of movement disorders, can be cured, but treatments are available to help control symptoms. That’s why it’s important to recognize potential warning signs and get a diagnosis early.

Deep Brain Stimulation

Physical, occupational and speech therapies also play an integral part in the management of Parkinson’s. In more advanced cases of Parkinson’s and movement disorders, a procedure known as deep brain stimulation (DBS) may be recommended. It is like a pacemaker for the brain and helps treat tremors, stiffness and slowness of movements.

“DBS is used for patients whose symptoms are not adequately controlled with medications, or when the medication regimen impairs quality of life,” Dr. Kilbane says. “We use DBS to treat Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor and dystonia.”

Camilla Kilbane, MD, is a neurologist and directs the fellowship program in movement disorders in the Parkinson’s & Movement Disorders Center at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Kilbane or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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