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Non-motor Symptoms: What’s New? Part 1

Man struggling to read

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is largely known for its motor symptoms, slow movement, tremor and stiffness, but other wide-ranging challenges, known as non-motor or non-movement symptoms — can often be most problematic. Treating these non-motor symptoms promotes optimal living.

The following article is part one of a two-part series based on a Parkinson’s Foundation Expert Briefings webinar exploring the latest research and treatments in PD-related non-motor symptoms, by Ronald Pfeiffer, MD, Oregon Health and Sciences University, a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence.

Early Parkinson’s Symptoms

Early signs of Parkinson’s can appear before a Parkinson’s diagnosis is ever made. Non-movement symptoms can begin decades before a diagnosis. Impaired sense of smell occurs in 70 to 90 percent of those living with PD, often precedes other PD symptoms. Licorice, coconut and banana are some smells people with PD have difficulty with, while scents like chocolate, strawberry and onion, are not impacted.

Another common early pre-movement symptom, constipation, can begin around age 40, sometimes preceding a PD diagnosis by 20 years. Erectile dysfunction, REM sleep behavior disorder, depression and anxiety are often also early non-motor PD symptoms. 

Vision Changes

About 14 percent of people with PD experience vision changes including tired eyes, blurred vision, intermittent double vision or difficulties reading and seeing in dim lighting. Optometrists who look closely may discover convergence insufficiency, impaired color perception, blinking irregularities or reduced contrast sensitivity (the capacity to pick out an object from its background). Playing video games may improve contrast sensitivity, but no PD-specific studies have been done. Fitting glasses with prisms can help PD-related double vision. Both blepharospasm (involuntary eye closure) or apraxia of lid opening (inability to open the eye) may benefit from botulinum toxin A (BOTOX®). At-home eye exercises called “pencil push-ups” may help with convergence insufficiency. Talk to your doctor or optometrist about how to perform these exercises, or to discuss vision treatments.


Pain related to PD is divided into five categories:

  1. Musculoskeletal: pain that affects the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves. It can occur suddenly and be short-lived or long lasting and can occur in one or several areas. Someone with PD may describe this as aching or burning in their muscles or skeleton.
  2. Neuropathic/radicular: chronic pain condition where the body sends pain signals to the brain, not caused by an injury. This sharp pain comes from a nerve or nerve root.
  3. Dystonic: sustained or repetitive muscle twisting, spasm or cramp that can occur at different times of day and in different stages of Parkinson’s. Can stem from rigidity and dystonia.
  4. Akathisia: causes the feeling of restlessness or inability to be still. An example of this outside of Parkinson’s is Restless Leg Syndrome.
  5. Central pain: neurological condition caused by a dysfunction that affects the central nervous system and is resistant to treatment. This pain is usually sharp and burning with no clear cause.

Though muscle relaxers are not usually effective, adjusting PD medications may help minimize “wearing off" episodes. Physical therapy or surgery can improve pinched nerve pain, while BOTOX® injections may improve dystonia.

Autonomic Dysfunctions

Non-motor problems include those with the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, sexual function and both gastrointestinal and urinary function. These can be among the most serious problems for people with PD.

Oral Health Issues

Excess saliva: Experienced by up to 80 percent of people with Parkinson’s, it begins as nocturnal drooling and can progress to heavy saliva outpourings. Drooling isn’t caused by excess saliva; in PD it is due to decreased swallowing frequency and efficiency, as well as tendencies toward an open mouth and stooped posture. While surgery was used in treatment in the past, it is no longer advocated. Hard candy, medications, including sublingual atropine or glycopyrrolate, or BOTOX® injections have all been used in treatment. Discuss options with your doctor.

Dry mouth: Decreased saliva production in PD can cause dry mouth; medications can increase this dryness, raising the risks of cavities and periodontal disease. Artificial saliva products like Biotene®, which contains xylitol and glycerin, can help. Discuss treatments, including medications that increase saliva production, with your doctor or dentist.

Halitosis: Bad breath is common in PD, but rarely discussed. Many factors — dry mouth, inadequate brushing, gum disease, mouth bacteria and not drinking enough fluids — can contribute. Treatment includes adequate cleaning of teeth and mouth and alleviating dry mouth.

Recognizing and Addressing Symptoms

Non-motor PD features may also include sleep disorders, cognitive changes, hallucinations and delusions or weight changes. It’s important to stay abreast of all symptoms, and to discuss treatments with your doctor.

Read the second article in this series now: Non-motor Symptoms: What’s New? Part 2.

Parkinson's Foundation Helpline

Contact our Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (1-800-473-4636) or for answers to your Parkinson’s questions. Helpline specialists can assist you in English or Spanish, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET.

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