If You Notice This While Walking, It Could Be an Early Sign of Parkinson's

Researchers say spotting this early symptom could help you long-term.

Parkinson's disease is a disorder that affects your movements over time, which makes it a challenging disease to live with. And it's not a condition that necessarily comes with age: Actor Michael J. Fox has been candid about getting diagnosed with Parkinson's when he was just 29 years old after noticing a tiny twitch in one of his fingers. Unfortunately, many symptoms of the disease typically start gradually and can be tough to spot at the beginning of the illness—and early diagnosis is key to managing Parkinson's. That's why it's so important to know what to look for. One study found that you may be able to pinpoint an early sign of the disease in your day-to-day movements. Read on to find out which early Parkinson's symptom you can notice while you're walking.

RELATED: 96 Percent of People With Parkinson's Have This in Common, Study Says.

If you swing your arms asymmetrically, it may be a symptom of Parkinson's disease.

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A 2012 study published in Gait & Posture analyzed the arm movements of Parkinson's patients who were in the early stages of the disease. Penn State researchers attached accelerometers to the arms of eight patients and eight people of similar age and sex who did not have Parkinson's disease, and then observed them as they walked continuously for around eight minutes at a comfortable pace. The results showed that those who had Parkinson's had a significantly higher rate of arm swing asymmetry when walking—meaning one arm swung significantly less than the other.

"In other words, if I measure the location of your right arm, it is difficult to use that measurement to predict the location of your left arm," study co-author Joseph Cusumano, PhD, professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State, said in a statement. "It is well known that Parkinson's disease has an impact on how people move … but here we are for the first time precisely quantifying how the disease not only affects the relative amount of limb movements, but also how well coordinated in time these movements are."

Arm swing asymmetry can be detected before more well-known Parkinson's symptoms.

Senior man walking through the park after his running session.
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According to the Parkinson's Foundation, people with Parkinson's are known to lose their automatic movements, and one of the most recognizable movement changes is a decrease or loss of swing in one or both arms. However, Xuemei Huang, MD, one of the study authors for the 2012 study, released an earlier 2009 study in Gait & Posture that concluded arm swing asymmetry could be seen in Parkinson's patients even before they started exhibiting signs of lost or reduced arm swing.

"We know that Parkinson's patients lose their arm swing even very early in the disease but nobody had looked using a scientifically measured approach to see if the loss was asymmetrical or when this asymmetry first showed up," Huang said in a statement to Medical News Today. "Unlike arm swing magnitude, arm swing asymmetry unequivocally differs between people with early PD and controls."

If Parkinson's is detected early, certain treatments can reduce the likelihood of death.

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According to the 2012 study, arm swing asymmetry is a symptom of Parkinson's that can be detected early. And while no cure for Parkinson's disease currently exists, spotting this symptom gives patients a better chance of mitigating later symptoms and reducing the likelihood of death, because they can be diagnosed early and get immediate treatment.

"Measuring arm swing asymmetry and coordination with our method may be the cheapest and most effective way to detect Parkinson's disease early in patients' lives when it still is possible to treat the symptoms of the disease and to improve longevity," study co-author Stephen Piazza, PhD, professor of kinesiology at Penn State, said in a statement.

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Signs of movement changes in your legs mean you're in the later stages of the disease.

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Of course, changes in arm movement are not the only symptoms of Parkinson's. If you notice a change in the way you walk in your legs, you may have already reached a later stage of Parkinson's disease. Per the 2012 study, reduced synchronization or coordination between both legs has been commonly reported in Parkinson's patients and this kind of "abnormal gait" is more common in the later stages of Parkinson's disease. The Cleveland Clinic says balance and walking problems typically begin in the mid-stage of the disease. Once in a mid-to-late stage, standing and walking become more difficult and patients may need a walker before progressing to an advanced stage, where people either require a wheelchair or are bedridden.

RELATED: If You Do This at Night, It May Be an Early Sign of Parkinson's, Study Says.

Kali Coleman
Kali is an assistant editor at Best Life. Read more
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