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Parkinson's Complications

There are a wide range of complications associated with Parkinson's disease.

Parkinson's complications commonly include the inhibition of motor skills. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Parkinson's complications commonly include the inhibition of motor skills.

Parkinson's Complications

A well-known Parkinson's complication is the impaired movement patients experience as a result of their tremors and diminished motor control. Parkinson's disease (PD) is a complicated illness, however, and has serious effects on other aspects of patients' lives, including their mental and emotional health.

Physical Complications

The most significant complication of Parkinson's disease is motor impairment, which has a wide-ranging effect on the body and its systems. Some of the most common physical complications include:

  • Trouble walking
  • Unstable posture
  • Problems swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Constipation
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Speech problems

Poor balance and posture can be very dangerous in elderly patients who are prone to falling because they increase their risk of impact-related injuries like dislocations and fractures. Likewise, swallowing problems can also be very dangerous because they increase the patient's risk of choking and developing aspiration pneumonia, which causes the lungs to become inflamed and may lead to prolonged illness and even death.

Both constipation and urinary incontinence or retention may be caused by the medications used to treat PD or by the disease itself. These complications pose less of a threat to patients' health than gait or swallowing problems, but they can have an extremely negative effect on their physical comfort and well-being.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, some reports estimate that 70 percent of Parkinson's patients develop speech problems. These problems vary from patient to patient, but they often result from muscle rigidity, loss of motor control and abnormal breathing caused by the disease. Some patients may have trouble expressing themselves with vocal tone, while others may speak very quickly or continually repeat words.

Emotional Complications

The combined effect of Parkinson's disease on the body's neurotransmitters and patients' abilities to lead productive, fulfilling lives often leads to a number of serious emotional complications, the most common of which is depression. The National Institutes of Health report that between 40 and 50 percent of all patients with PD also develop depression. These patients often have low levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin; unfortunately, their depressive symptoms don't normally improve with treatment of levodopa and other anti-parkinsonian medications, even though such drugs are designed to increase dopamine levels in the brain. Depression associated with PD can also be tricky to spot and difficult to diagnose, mainly because it often does not produce the hallmark symptoms of regular major depression (i.e., guilt, delusions, self-blame and suicidal thinking). Instead, patients often experience lack of emotion, lowered motivation to do work, decreased libido and fatigue.

Patients with PD are also at risk for developing an anxiety disorder. One study found that nearly a third of its participating patients could also have been diagnosed with some form of an anxiety disorder.

Certain medications used to treat PD may create other emotional complications. For example, combined treatment with levodopa and a dopamine agonist has been found to increase compulsive behaviors like shopping and gambling in patients.

Mental Complications

Patients with Parkinson's disease commonly experience problems thinking, remembering, using language and solving problems. When these problems begin to impair their normal functioning, they are often diagnosed as dementia (technically, a doctor must find that two or more of a patient's cognitive skills are defective in order to make an official diagnosis). Some studies have suggested that dementia is three to six times more likely to affect elderly patients with PD than the average older adult. When combined with debilitating symptoms of PD, the effects of dementia can have a serious and lasting impact on a patient's ability to lead a normal, productive life. Fortunately, according to the Mayo Clinic, there is some evidence that medication used to treat Alzheimer's disease can improve symptoms of dementia in these patients.

Other Complications

People with Parkinson's disease may experience other problems, including trouble sleeping, waking hallucinations, impaired vision and a poor sense of smell. Hallucinations and daytime sleepiness are frequently caused or exacerbated by Parkinson's medications.

Other complications, like sexual dysfunction, are often the result of the disease itself and the emotional problems it creates. In fact, a study conducted in 2000 found that not only did patients with PD experience sexual dysfunction, but they were also less likely to express their feelings and exchange affectionate touches with their partners.

There is also evidence to suggest that PD may raise the risk of developing weak bones and osteoporosis for both men and women. To keep bones healthy, patients (especially those who have trouble walking) should make regular appointments with their doctors.

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