Actor Michael J. Fox made headlines in 1998 when he announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease several years earlier at age 30.
Now more than 20 years later, he’s making news again with the NBC debut of “The Michael J. Fox Show,” in which he plays a newscaster who returns to work after his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Both the actor and his TV character are helping to shed light on what this brain disease really looks like.
Fox initially hid his diagnosis from the public and continued acting on the show “Spin City” until the tremors and shaking — classic symptoms of the disease — became too obvious to disguise. But tremors aren’t the only sign of Parkinson’s disease. Other symptoms of the disease can appear long before tremors develop (if tremors develop at all).
“Many people do not realize that 20 percent of those suffering from Parkinson’s disease do not have tremors,” says Michael Okun, M.D., national medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation.
10 warning signs of Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system that affects your motor skills. Tremors are the most well-known symptom of the disease, but Parkinson’s can cause several other mild symptoms early on — all of which can be very deceptive and easily mistaken for something else. Signs and symptoms gradually worsen over time as the disease progresses. In the early stage of Parkinson’s, symptoms may include stiffness, depression and lack of facial expressions, among other things. If you experience any of the following signs and symptoms without other logical causes, talk to your doctor. He or she may want to test you for other indicators of Parkinson’s disease.
Depression: If you’ve noticed a distinct change in your mood or behavior changes in someone you love, that may be a red flag. “Depression is one very important early sign of Parkinson’s that’s not often associated with the disease,” says Okun. Of course, depression and anxiety can have many causes, so consult with your doctor if your outlook doesn’t improve.
Twitching: A finger that twitches uncontrollably can be a precursor to the more obvious tremors and shaking that are characteristic of Parkinson’s.
Small handwriting: Changes due to Parkinson’s can alter your handwriting, causing you to write smaller, crowd words together or otherwise alter your normal penmanship. This could be caused by other disorders, but writing letters with less height and less space between the characters and the words is a sign of Parkinson’s disease called micrographia.
Reduced sense of smell: You may have trouble sniffing out even strong-smelling foods such as bananas and licorice if you’re congested due to a cold or allergies. But a change in your ability to smell, even when your nose isn’t stuffed up, can be a symptom of Parkinson’s.
Sleep issues: Tossing and turning on occasion is perfectly normal, but if you go from a normally peaceful sleeper to one who thrashes, kicks and even falls out of bed while in a deep sleep, that may be cause for concern. Individuals with Parkinson’s often have restless leg syndrome, as well.
Stiffness: Achiness and stiffness in your joints and muscles can be a normal part of aging, but it can also be an indicator of Parkinson’s disease. Pay attention if your stiffness doesn’t go away with increased movement or if you notice that your arms no longer swing naturally as you walk.
Constipation: Difficulty having a bowel movement can be attributed to a change in diet, certain medications or not having enough fiber or water in your system. But many people with Parkinson’s also strain to move their bowels.
Talking softly: Many people begin speaking louder as they get older because their hearing worsens. But speaking more softly or sounding slightly hoarse when you talk can be an early warning sign of Parkinson’s. It may sound like a person needs to clear his throat, but it’s actually the disease itself.
Dizziness: Feeling faint or dizzy when you try to stand up can be caused by low blood pressure, a condition linked to Parkinson’s disease.
Lack of facial expression: People who suffer from Parkinson’s have a condition called “masking.” This results in looking more serious, not smiling and not blinking their eyes as often as normal.
Take the next steps
On their own, none of these symptoms are necessarily a cause for alarm, but if you experience several possible signs of Parkinson’s disease, see your doctor. While there is no cure for the disease, earlier diagnosis and treatment can help slow the progression of Parkinson’s and control symptoms.
If you are experiencing any of the above signs or symptoms, start track the progression of them. Note when they started to develop and how often they occur. Are the symptoms becoming more intense? Write everything down, and most important, be sure to communicate this with your doctor.