Parkinson’s disease and Parkinsonism can share similar symptoms like tremors and movement problems. There are some major differences, and treatments are not the same.

Parkinson’s disease and Parkinsonism are two very similar conditions. Both can result in tremors, stiffness, and movement problems. But there are some subtle differences that your healthcare team can use to help tell the difference between the conditions.

In this article, we discuss the difference between Parkinson’s disease and Parkinsonism, and how each of these conditions is managed.

First, here’s a look at both disorders:

  • Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder where damage to neurons leads to a decrease in neurotransmitters like dopamine. Symptoms may include movement problems, tremors, depression, and communication issues.
  • Parkinsonism is a more generic term for a group of conditions that can cause movement problems similar to those seen in people with Parkinson’s disease.

It can be difficult to distinguish between Parkinson’s disease and Parkinsonism early on since both of these conditions can develop with similar symptoms.

Both Parkinson’s disease and Parkinsonism can cause:

However, there are some signs and symptoms that can help differentiate between the two conditions.

Parkinson’s disease may also cause:

  • a shuffling gait
  • expressionless face
  • dry skin
  • constipation

Depending on the cause, Parkinsonism may also lead to:

  • involuntary movements (especially when medication is the cause)
  • weakness after a stroke or head trauma
  • reflex changes
  • sensor changes on one side of the body
  • coordination problems
  • dementia

Parkinson’s disease takes years to develop, usually beginning with subtle or mild symptoms. Genetics and environmental conditions are potential causes of this condition.

Meanwhile, Parkinsonism can develop suddenly. It’s linked to stroke, brain injury, medication use, and less commonly infections. Parkinsonism usually develops more suddenly and includes symptoms like hallucinations or dementia.

Parkinson’s disease usually begins on one side of the body and progresses to involve both sides. Parkinsonism either affects both sides equally from the beginning, or it only involves one side — depending on the cause.

Typically, Parkinsonism does not respond as well to the medications typically used to manage Parkinson’s disease. A physical exam, medical history, and testing can clearly distinguish between the two disorders.

A diagnosis that accurately differentiates between Parkinson’s disease and Parkinsonism can be difficult to get.

Infections as a trigger for Parkinsonism

Infections are a possible source for Parkinsonism, with the following viruses most often linked to the condition:

The condition can also develop from inflammation and other problems that may occur after an infection or illness.

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Parkinsonism can develop spontaneously, but certain medications can increase the risk of developing these symptoms. In fact, medications are the second leading cause of Parkinsonism.

Some of the most common medications believed to cause Parkinsonism, also known as drug-induced Parkinsonism, include:

While these medications carry the risk of triggering Parkinsonism symptoms, they are usually only prescribed for very specific — and often serious — conditions. Do not stop taking any of these medications or change your dosage without talking with your healthcare team first.

Aside from prescription medications, there are also some illegal drugs that can cause Parkinsonism symptoms. Examples include cocaine and amphetamines.

Parkinsonism may be reversed, depending on what caused your symptoms in the first place.

Symptoms that viral or bacterial infections trigger may be more lasting, but drug-induced Parkinsonism usually improves when the drug believed to have triggered your symptoms is stopped.

The medication levodopa is the primary treatment for Parkinson’s disease. One indicator that you are dealing with Parkinsonism (instead of Parkinson’s disease) can be the lack of effect this medication has on your condition. Levodopa may help some symptoms of Parkinsonism, but the disorder usually does not respond as well as Parkinson’s disease.

Consider consulting your healthcare team if you’re receiving treatment for Parkinson’s disease or Parkinsonism and your symptoms have not improved or are getting worse. Physical therapy can be an important aspect of treatment for both Parkinson’s disease and Parkinsonism.

When to seek help

For people with Parkinson’s disease, the evolution of symptoms is usually gradual. Drug-induced and other forms of Parkinsonism may come on suddenly, prompting you to seek emergency medical care.

Be sure to review your personal and family medical history with your doctor. Having this discussion can you better understand your risk of developing neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease or Parkinsonism.

If you or a loved one experience these symptoms, you can also find information and resources at a number of local and national organizations, such as:

Your healthcare team can also help you find resources and support in your local area.

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Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disease that shares symptoms with other neurological diseases. Parkinsonism includes many different conditions that can be confused for Parkinson’s.

It’s important that you consult your healthcare team if you develop tremors or stiffness, especially if these symptoms develop suddenly.

It can take some time to get an accurate diagnosis, but your healthcare team will be able to guide and support you through the process.