Many people are familiar with Parkinson’s disease, a brain condition that affects nearly 1 million Americans. However, few people are aware of Parkinson’s plus syndrome, a group of conditions that are closely related to Parkinson’s disease. These conditions cause many of the same symptoms as Parkinson’s, but they have different causes and different disease progression.
Keep reading to learn about what causes Parkinson’s plus syndrome, symptoms you might experience, how it can be treated, and more.
Parkinson’s plus syndrome is the name for a group of neurological conditions that are very similar to Parkinson’s disease. Because these conditions cause symptoms that are very similar to Parkinson’s, they are often incorrectly diagnosed. However, these conditions can even be treated using many of the same medications and therapies as Parkinson’s.
Conditions that are considered Parkinson’s plus syndromes include:
- Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). PSP causes trouble with balance and stability that can mimic Parkinson’s disease. Unlike Parkinson’s disease, people with PSP don’t experience tremors. They do have difficulty with eye movement and are likely to experience more trouble with speech, swallowing, and mood than people with Parkinson’s disease.
- Multiple system atrophy (MSA). MSA is a progressive condition that affects your nervous system. It causes stiffness and loss of balance similarly to Parkinson’s disease. Over time, the effects of the disease on your nervous system can lead to difficulty with essential body functions such as digestion, breathing, and your heartbeat.
- Corticobasal ganglionic degeneration (CBGD). CBGD is a condition that causes parts of your brain to become smaller. This causes many symptoms that overlap with Parkinson’s disease, such as tremors and balance problems. Over time, it can lead to difficulty with both speaking and writing.
- Lewy body dementia (LBD). LBD is a progressive brain condition caused by structures called Lewy bodies that form in your brain. People with LBD might have symptoms that resemble Parkinson’s disease, dementia, or a combination of both.
The symptoms of Parkinson’s plus can vary and depend on the condition you have. Many people will have symptoms that are also found in Parkinson’s disease, such as:
- balance problems
- stiffness or muscle rigidity
- difficulty walking and standing
- difficulty controlling your movements
The conditions that make up Parkinson’s plus are not actually Parkinson’s disease and do have unique symptoms.
Unique symptoms of PSP include:
- falling backward
- blurred vision and difficulty reading
- difficulty moving the eyes up and down
- slurred speech
- difficulty swallowing
- depression or other mood issues
- behavioral changes
- laughing or crying at inappropriate times
Unique symptoms of MSA include:
- breathing problems that get worse at night
- syncope, or passing out
- slurred speech
- low blood pressure
- bladder problems
- sleep disturbances
Unique symptoms of CBGD include:
- one-sided movement trouble
- involuntary muscle contractions
- rapid muscle jerks
- trouble with concentration
- trouble with communication
- behavioral changes
- trouble coordinating movements, or apraxia
- loss of control over an arm called “alien limb syndrome“
Unique symptoms of LBD include:
- difficulty processing information
- difficulty following instructions
- decreased awareness of surroundings
- sleep disturbances
- mood changes
People with Parkinson’s plus syndrome are often diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early years of their condition. However, their condition won’t progress like Parkinson’s disease. It might progress faster, and they might start to develop symptoms that aren’t present in Parkinson’s disease.
There is no definitive test for Parkinson’s or Parkinson’s plus syndrome. Instead, a doctor might conduct a series of tests that will look at your balance, ability to walk, and coordination. These are generally simple in-office tests involving the doctor watching you walk, sit, stand, and perform other movements. You’ll likely also do some memory and cognition tests with the doctor.
The doctor might also order some imaging tests to get a closer look at your brain. These may include:
Researchers aren’t sure what causes Parkinson’s or Parkinson’s plus syndrome. There might be some genetic or environmental risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s plus syndrome. For example, some scientists theorize that exposure to toxins could cause your risk, but more research needs to be done to prove this link.
Although the underlying cause isn’t known, we do know what changes to your body can cause each Parkinson’s plus syndrome:
- PSP. When you have PSP, a buildup of protein in your brain cells causes them to deteriorate. Your condition will progress as this continues.
- MSA. As with PSP, proteins accumulate in the cells of your brain that control your central nervous system and other vital functions.
- CBGD. A protein called tau builds up in your brain cells when you have CBGD. This buildup causes the symptoms of CBGD.
- LBD. Protein clusters called Lewy bodies grow in your brain when you have LBD. Over time, the Lewy bodies cause changes to your brain that impact your ability to function.
While there is no specific cure for Parkinson’s plus syndrome, there are treatments that can control your symptoms. A doctor can develop a plan for your overall health and to treat your specific symptoms. Medications that treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease often do not work as well for Parkinson’s plus syndrome.
Treatment options might include:
- Walking and balance assistance. You might receive physical and occupational therapy to help keep you moving. Therapists can help you build strength and prevent falls. They can also help you learn to use canes, walkers, and other mobility aids, if needed.
- Swallowing and speech assistance. A speech therapist can help you adjust to changes that might make it hard to swallow and speak. They can help you communicate and can recommend foods and beverages that are easier to swallow.
- Medications for cognitive issues. Your doctor might prescribe a variety of medications that can help with your focus and memory. Many of these medications are also used for conditions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.
- Medications for trouble with movement. You might be prescribed medications that can help you control your muscles and movement. These medications might also address stiffness and balance problems.
- Medications to help with mood symptoms. If you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mood-related concerns, your doctor might prescribe medications that can help with these symptoms.
Although there currently isn’t a treatment to halt the progression of Parkinson’s plus syndrome, there are treatments that can help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
The exact outlook for Parkinson’s plus syndrome depends on the person and the specific condition they have. Someone who is otherwise healthy when they’re diagnosed will typically have a longer life expectancy than someone who is already facing other health conditions when they’re diagnosed. Your doctor will monitor your condition over time and can let you know how it’s progressing.
Parkinson’s plus syndrome is the name given to a group of conditions that have similar symptoms to Parkinson’s disease but are not Parkinson’s. Some of the conditions are caused when protein builds up in the brain, leading to damage. Parkinson’s plus syndrome is progressive, but with treatment, symptoms can be managed to improve your quality of life.