How a Diagnosis is Made

The bedside examination by a neurologist remains the first and most important diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease (PD). Researchers are working to develop a standard biological marker such as a blood test or an imaging scan that is sensitive and specific for Parkinson’s disease.

A neurologist will make the diagnosis based on:

  • A detailed history of symptoms, medical problems, current and past medications. Certain medical conditions, as well as some medications, can cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s.
  • A detailed neurological examination during which a neurologist will ask you to perform tasks to assess the agility of arms and legs, muscle tone, gait and balance, to see if:
    • Expression and speech are animated.
    • Tremor can be observed in your extremities at rest or in action.
    • There is stiffness in extremities or neck.
    • You can maintain your balance and examine your posture.
  • You may notice that a neurologist records your exam into a table, called Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS). This is a universal scale used by neurologists and movement disorder specialists to comprehensively assess and document the exam of a person with PD at a baseline, judge the effect of medication and track the progression of disease during future visits.
  • Most commonly, people with PD respond well to dopaminergic medications. Lack of response to medications may prompt the doctor to seek an alternative diagnosis such as atypical parkinsonism and order further testing such as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the brain.
  •  When unsure of a PD diagnosis, neurologists often refer patients to movement disorders specialists and order DaTscans.

What is a DaTscan and what role does it play in a Parkinson’s diagnosis?

A DaTscan is an imaging technology that uses small amounts of a radioactive drug to help determine how much dopamine is available in a person's brain. A SPECT scanner is used to measure the amount and location of the drug in the brain.

In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of a DaTscan.

While a DaTscan cannot diagnose PD, doctors use them to confirm a diagnosis. A negative DaTscan result does not rule out a Parkinson’s diagnosis, but a positive result helps confirm it. The problem with positive results is that it does not differentiate Parkinson’s disease from other forms of parkinsonism, such as multiple system atrophy (MSA) or progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), that can also produce a loss of dopamine in the brain. A positive DaTscan can differentiate PD from Essential Tremor (ET) as there is no dopamine deficiency in the latter.

Are there risks associated with DaTscan?
Possible adverse reactions such as headache, nausea, vertigo, dry mouth and mild to moderate dizziness were reported, hypersensitivity reaction and injection site pain have also been reported.

I have PD and several symptoms. Should I get a DaTscan?
Likely no. There is no need for DaTscan when your history and exam suggests Parkinson’s disease and you meet the diagnostic criteria. Occasionally, if signs and symptoms are mild or you don’t meet the diagnostic criteria then your neurologist or movement disorder specialist will refer you for a DaTscan. Keep in mind that ultimately the diagnosis is based on your history and physical exam and the DaTscan is most commonly used to complete the picture and is not a necessary test for a diagnosis.

How can I get a DaTscan?
Speak with your doctor to see if a DaTscan is right for you.

Is the DaTscan test covered by insurance, Medicare and Medicaid?
A DaTscan is covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Insurers are likely to cover a DaTscan, but coverage varies so please contact your insurer for confirmation before the procedure.

Want to learn more about the latest in DaTscan technology?
Read What's Hot in PD? An Update on DaTscanning for Parkinson's Disease Diagnosis.

The Parkinson’s Foundation recommends that a person with symptoms resembling those of PD consider making an appointment with a movement disorder specialist. To find a specialist in your community, call our free Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (473-4636) from Monday to Friday, 9:00 AM ET to 7:00 PM ET.

Page reviewed by Dr. Ahmad Elkouzi, Movement Disorders Fellow at the University of Florida, a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence.


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