If You Can't Do This Anymore, It Could Be an Early Sign of Parkinson's

This change in your face could be a signal of something deeper.

Understanding the early signs of a degenerative disease can make a huge difference in your condition in the long term. If you're able to get a diagnosis early, you can address the illness sooner and potentially stave off some of its effects, or at the very least, better prepare for them. Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder of the central nervous system that affects your movement, has a handful of key early signs to look out for. Experts say that once you notice that you're unable to do this one subtle thing, it could be a symptom of the disease. To see what you need to watch out for, read on.

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If you can't show emotion, it may be an early sign of Parkinson's.

Man with a masked face from Parkinson's

One of the early signs of Parkinson's is hypomimia, colloquially referred to as a "masked face" or "facial masking." Parkinson's causes muscles to stiffen and slow down, which can include the muscles in your face, causing you to appear emotionless.

David Beatty MRCGP, MBBS, a U.K.-based general practitioner, says that, for those with Parkinson's, "facial muscles [might] move less resulting in fewer smiles or grimaces." Additionally, Beatty says, "the eyes don't blink so much and there is less movement of the muscles around the eyes and the forehead."

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Parkinson's patients with facial masking tend to have more severe orofacial symptoms.

Man having trouble swallowing

Parkinson's can present with a wide variety of symptoms, from a loss of smell to a change in handwriting. But Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DrNP, faculty member for Walden University's Master of Science in Nursing program, says that research has shown that people with facial masking have more severe orofacial symptoms, meaning those related to the mouth and face. She pointed to a July 2020 study published in the European Journal of Neurology that found that about 70 percent of people with Parkinson's have facial masking and these patients are more likely to experience impaired speech, swallowing dysfunctions, and drooling.

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Facial masking can make it hard to gauge the mood of a person with Parkinson's.

man talks to a therapist about his marriage. He is serious about working on his relationship with his wife.

Without facial movement, your expression may come across as emotionless, causing you to seem upset or annoyed when you're not, says physician Chris Airey, MD, medical director at Optimale. He notes that Parkinson's can affect both voluntary and involuntary facial movements.

According to the Parkinson's Foundation, trying to understand a person with Parkinson's mood can be further complicated by other symptoms on top of facial masking. Facial expressions are an essential part of how we communicate. When you have a straight face along with speech changes, such as a low voice, which is common among Parkinson's patients, it can be challenging for people to understand your mood, the experts at the foundation explain.

But a masked facial expression doesn't necessarily mean the person is depressed.

Older woman with a masked face from Parkinson's

It may seem like the obvious conclusion is that someone with a blank facial expression is upset. However, experts have said that a masked face in Parkinson's patients is not necessarily linked to emotion. Beatty says that it's generally caused by the disease, not depression, but he also notes that the two conditions can co-exist.

The study in the European Journal of Neurology found that while people with a masked face did have less apathy, they did not have increased depression or anxiety. Meanwhile, the Parkinson's Foundation estimates that at least half of people with Parkinson's will experience a form of depression during their illness, and up to 40 percent will develop an anxiety disorder.

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