If You Notice This When You Talk, It Could Be an Early Sign of Parkinson's

This subtle symptom can affect up to 90 percent of Parkinson's patients.

Parkinson's disease affects millions of people worldwide—in the U.S. alone, 60,000 patients are diagnosed with the disease each year. While you may know some of the typical signs of Parkinson's, like a shake in your hand or stiffness in your leg, others are so subtle, they can potentially go undetected for months or even years. One early symptom that affects the majority of Parkinson's patients is something you may notice when you talk. To learn more about the Parkinson's symptom that could arise during your next conversation, read on.

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If the volume of your voice becomes softer, it could be an early sign of Parkinson's.

Man holding his throat in pain

Parkinson's disease (PD) can affect your body in many ways, but usually, the first sign that leads to a diagnosis is a tremor in one hand, according to John Hopkins Medicine. This isn't to say that there aren't others, however, including a slight change in your voice that could easily go unnoticed.

"Even at that early stage, many patients will, in fact, have mild speech impairment that could be identified on the neurological exam or detected by using instruments," says Zoltan Mari, MD, Director of the Nevada Parkinson's Disease & Movement Disorders Program at Cleveland Clinic.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to 90 percent of Parkinson's patients experience difficulties with their speech at some point, and changes in the quality of their voice could be one of the first signs of the disease. One frequent symptom is speaking softly, which is known as hypophonia.

"The symptoms can actually vary tremendously from person to person, but one incredibly common symptom is a quiet/low speaking volume," says Gianna Nebbia, a licensed speech-language pathologist. "In fact, when I first ask someone with PD why they're seeking speech therapy, they often respond with, 'Everyone keeps telling me to speak up.'"

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Changes in the pitch and pace of your speech can also be symptoms of Parkinson's.

Man talking in meeting

Some Parkinson's patients notice changes in the tone and pitch of their voices, too. For example, Celia Montes, MS, CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologist at Control Bionics, notes that one's voice can sound nasal when they talk, making it sound like they have a stuffy nose.

Montes says slow and labored speech is also common with the disease. "Patients with Parkinson's typically have some type of respiratory component in which they are unable to take an adequate breath, therefore affecting the quality of their speech," she explains.

Parkinson's can also lead to certain speech and language impairments.

Confused young black woman on phone

Slurred speech is another potential vocal symptom of Parkinson's. In a 2009 study published in the journal Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, author Kris Tjaden, PhD, details how 15 to 45 percent of people with Parkinson's have dysfluency, which is difficulty speaking clearly or fluently.

Speech impairments due to Parkinson's can also affect patients' language skills. "Language problems may affect the ability to understand speech or form speech, including finding the right words and constructing grammatically appropriate sentences," Mari adds. "To that extent, language issues correlate closely with cognitive impairment." 

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There are other oral issues associated with Parkinson's, like difficulties eating and drinking.

choking woman while drinking water;

Parkinson's symptoms can also affect your mouth in other ways beyond how you speak. Many patients have problems swallowing, leading to coughing or choking when eating or drinking, also known as dysphagia. In her study, Tjaden notes that between 40 to 95 percent of people with Parkinson's have dysphagia.

Nebbia says the symptom can even make eating painful for Parkinson's patients. "Weakness due to PD or other neurological disorders can make it difficult to chew, move food around the mouth, and/or swallow with enough force to get the food down to the esophagus and stomach," she says.

Montes says that Parkinson's patients can also experience changes in taste and smell, which "can impact a patient's ability to consume adequate nutrition and hydration."

There are different ways to improve these vocal symptoms of Parkinson's.

Woman talking with her doctor

While there is no cure for Parkinson's, there are different wants to manage it. Nebbia notes that working with a speech specialist and exercising the voice a lot can be extremely helpful.

"A speech-language pathologist can evaluate the person's voice and recommend/teach exercises that will help the person specifically," she adds. "Remember, no two individuals with PD present the exact same way."

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