Recognizing Signs of Parkinson’s Disease in Friends and Family 

Muhammad Ali, the “greatest of all time (GOAT),” famous for his boxing prowess, in addition to his theatrical antics in and out of the ring, brought national attention to Parkinson’s disease when he was diagnosed after retirement. Despite the spotlight, the public often misses Parkinsonian symptoms by chalking them up to “old age.”

Symptoms are mistakenly seen as a normal decline of once active and robust elders of the family and community. Yet, the disease is far from healthy aging. Recognizing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is important to catch and treat early so we can help give our loved ones a better quality of life.

Here’s how to identify warning signs of Parkinson’s disease to help recognize potential cases.

1. Rigidity

Ali once uttered the famous line “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” which commentators argued represented his fighting style: elegant, fast and powerful. In a sad twist of fate, Parkinson’s gave Ali rigidity, a stark contrast to his former agility.

Parkinsonian rigidity feels like a grapple; someone opposing and resisting your every movement. The rigidity has a variety of presentations in different people. It may occur in any joint – even the tiniest ones in the hand – or affect an entire extremity. Sometimes, the symptoms will be asymmetric – for example, it affects the right arm and left leg, but nowhere else in the body.

2. Slowness, aka Bradykinesia

With mesmerizing speed and quick thinking, Ali was able to predict and dodge punches while launching effective counterattacks. In his older age, however, he began to slow down due to his Parkinson’s.

Slowing down, aka bradykinesia, is a common finding in this disease. Patients feel like their movements and actions take more time to initiate and complete, like a sloth climbing along a tree branch. A patient may describe their experience as feeling weak, fatigued or uncoordinated. However, the real source of the issue is the inability to initiate movement. A disconnect seemingly exists between the brain and body where the former is commanding an action, but the latter is “slow” or unwilling to respond.

3. Tremors

Ali’s punches were always smooth and efficient, connecting with his opponents and giving tremendous knockouts. Parkinson’s patients often develop tremors, which makes smooth movements almost impossible. Basic activities of daily life like eating cereal may become difficult as the uncontrollable shaking may launch milk and cereal pieces off the spoon. The ability to leave the house can be diminished as simple things like driving can become dangerous. The mundane and easy aspects of life may become more of a challenge. The tremors can also have a psychological burden as patients may feel ashamed and/or frustrated most with this symptom.

4. Other Signs

As Parkinson’s progresses, patients often develop imbalance with standing or walking. The illness may limit or erase the ability for patients to keep upright, increasing the risk of falls and injuring themselves. Further progression of disease state can have a host of issues, including slowed cognition, hallucinations, depression and diminished emotional expressiveness.

When To See a Doctor

Recognizing these most common presentations of Parkinson’s disease will equip you to better identify the condition. Early intervention could improve a person’s day-to-day life and potentially slow their decline. If you think you or a loved one may be showing signs of Parkinson’s disease, talking with a primary care provider is the first place to start. They will be able to assess and refer to a specialist if needed.