There’s no single test for Parkinson’s disease. The diagnostic process for this chronic condition can often take months. In many cases, trials of Parkinson’s medications are used ‌to help diagnose Parkinson’s.

Recent studies have found that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to help find and diagnose Parkinson’s much earlier than other methods. MRIs look for specific markers in the brain that can indicate Parkinson’s. Often, these markers are present even before symptoms of Parkinson’s begin.

Keep reading to learn how MRIs can be used to detect Parkinson’s, as well as other tests used to confirm a diagnosis and what your next steps are after diagnosis.

MRIs use magnets to create detailed images of the inside of the body. Brain MRIs can help doctors spot tumors, brain bleeding, and other brain health conditions. Recently, medical researchers have discovered that MRIs can also spot small changes in the brain that can indicate Parkinson’s disease.

A 2019 study on MRIs and Parkinson’s found that people with Parkinson’s often have visibly damaged brain neurons. The damage to neurons is present before any brain atrophy begins, and before symptoms are present.

By using an MRI to look for damaged neurons, researchers believe Parkinson’s could be found much earlier. Additionally, researchers think that damaged neurons can indicate the possible severity of future cognitive decline.

Using this information, doctors can prescribe appropriate treatments, such as Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) therapy, that can slow down decline and improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s.

Because there isn’t a specific test for Parkinson’s disease, doctors instead assess patients and look for key symptoms of Parkinson’s, such as tremors, slow movements, or stiffness. The presence of these symptoms, along with a review of a person’s medical history, can often be used to diagnose Parkinson’s.

In some cases, a doctor might order tests to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. This can include MRIs and other imaging tests, such as PET scans. It might also include bloodwork, urine samples, and other lab work. This type of testing can’t help diagnose Parkinson’s, but it can help confirm a suspected Parkinson’s diagnosis.

Parkinson’s can take several months and several visits to diagnose. Often, doctors will prescribe Parkinson’s medications before they’re certain of a diagnosis. A person’s response to Parkinson’s medications can be a strong indicator of whether their symptoms are caused by Parkison’s or by another condition.

Once you have a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, your doctor can begin developing a treatment plan. Parkinson’s treatments aim to minimize symptoms and slow down progression.

Treatment plans will take into account such factors as symptoms, overall health, and response to treatment. Although there’s no cure for Parkinson’s, treatment can improve your quality of life.

Common treatments for Parkinson’s include:

  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help improve strength and balance.
  • Speech therapy: Speech therapy can help reduce communication difficulties.
  • Lifestyle changes: People with Parkinson’s often benefit from adding exercise to their daily lives.
  • Medication: There are several medications approved to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s. You might need to change medications as Parkinson’s progresses.
  • Deep brain stimulation: Deep brain stimulation is a surgical procedure. Surgeons place electrodes in your brain that are connected to a generator placed in your chest. These electrodes can help reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Questions to ask your doctor

It’s a good idea to ask questions as you and your doctor discuss a treatment. Asking questions can help you make sure you understand your condition and the benefits of treatment. Here are some sample questions to ask your doctor:

  • Is it possible something other than Parkinson’s is causing my symptoms?
  • Do I need additional tests?
  • How will my condition progress?
  • What can I expect as my condition progresses?
  • How will Parkinson’s affect my other medical conditions?
  • What treatments are available?
  • Which treatments are best for me?
  • How will treatments help my current symptoms?
  • Will treatment slow down the progression of Parkinson’s?
  • What side effects do your recommended treatments have?
  • What happens if these treatments don’t help?
  • Can you recommend any resources or educational material for me?
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A chronic condition such as Parkinson’s can be overwhelming to manage. It’s important to have support. Here are some useful resources where you can find educational materials, support groups, and more.

You can read more about early onset Parkinson’s by checking out the answers to some common questions below.

What are the first symptoms of early onset Parkinson’s and when should I see a doctor?

There are some early warning signs associated with Parkinson’s. These symptoms don’t always mean a person will develop Parkinson’s but can be a signal that it’s very likely. Symptoms that can act as early warning signs include:

Once Parkinson’s begins, early symptoms are more distinct. They include:

  • slowed physical movements
  • a tremor or shaking, often in your hand or fingers
  • stiff or rigid muscles
  • short steps or feet-dragging
  • difficulty with balance
  • changes to posture
  • decreased blinking, smiling, and other unconscious movements
  • speaking very quietly or in a monotone
  • slurred speech
  • speaking very quickly
  • difficulty writing and changes to handwriting

It’s a good idea to talk with a doctor about any early warning signs symptoms or early symptoms of Parkinson’s you experience.

What are the risk factors for Parkinson’s?

There are a few known risk factors for Parkinson’s. These include:

  • having a family history of Parkinson’s
  • being over 60 years
  • being a male
  • having been exposed to herbicides, pesticides, and other toxins

It’s important to note that ‌these risk factors only cause a slight increase in risk. Having one or more risk factors isn’t an indicator you’ll develop Parkinson’s. However, if you’re concerned about your risk for Parkinson’s, talk with a doctor.

Can I have Parkinson’s without showing symptoms?

Early symptoms of Parkinson’s can be very mild. It’s common for people with very early Parkinson’s to not notice symptoms at first. However, symptoms will increase and become more severe as Parkinson’s disease progresses.

Is there anything I can do to slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms?

Treatment for Parkinson’s can help you manage your symptoms. Currently, there’s no way to cure or stop the progression of Parkinson’s. However, medical professionals have found ways to slow the progression of symptoms with therapies such as medications and deep brain therapy.

Diet and exercise are also known to slow down Parkinson’s. Studies have shown that eating a nutritious diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, can help slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

Additionally, getting regular exercise has been shown to slow down symptom progression. People with Parkinson’s should try to get at least 2.5 hours of exercise each week. A physical therapist or another medical professional can help you develop an exercise routine that meets your needs.

MRIs can help detect early onset Parkinson’s before any symptoms appear. MRIs can spot damaged brain neurons that can indicate Parkinson’s and help predict the severity of future symptoms.

Doctors can get information from an MRI to diagnose Parkinson’s early and get people started on treatments that can slow down the progression of symptoms.

Treatments for Parkinson’s include medications, lifestyle changes, physical therapy, speech therapy, and deep brain stimulation.