When most people think of Parkinson's disease they think of elderly people or at least adults. It is extremely rare, but Parkinson's symptoms can actually appear in children as young as six. In some cases even younger.
If your child has or might have Juvenile Parkinson's (JP), you are no doubt concerned. While JP is very rare, the Jane and John Justin Neurosciences Center at Cook Children's is one of a handful of pediatric programs with expertise in treating children, teens and young adults with JP.
Parkinson's is a neurological disease. Because it affects body movements such as walking and talking and may cause tremors, it is considered a movement disorder. Parkinson's is most commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 40. Though less common, young-onset Parkinson's is diagnosed in people between the ages of 21-40. Even rarer still, juvenile Parkinson's is diagnosed in those under the age of 21.
While both boys and girls are diagnosed with juvenile Parkinson's, boys appear to have a slightly higher risk of developing the disease. Because children whose parent or sibling has Parkinson's are twice as likely to develop the disease during their lifetime, it is likely that genetics play a role in at least some cases. Viral infections or exposure to environmental toxins may also play a part.
Juvenile Parkinson's begins to develop with the loss of nerve cells in the brain which produce a chemical call dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, that carries impulses between the nerve cells in your child's brain to control their body movements. When there is no dopamine to carry the message to the nerves that control the muscles, the muscles don't get the message and basically don't know what they are supposed to do. As the loss of nerve cells continues, the symptoms of JP set in and, over time, worsen.
In juvenile Parkinson's the symptoms are subtle due to the fact the disease progresses more slowly in children, teens and young adults. In fact, there is some research that suggests that many people who aren't diagnosed with Parkinson's until late in adulthood, may have had symptoms at a much younger age but. Because they were extremely mild, didn't notice them. Some of the more common symptoms of JP include:
- Abnormal posture, such as turning or arching of the foot and toes
- Tremors, which often begin in the hands, causing them to shake uncontrollably
- Rigid, stiff or tense muscles (young children may complain about "Charley horses" or intense pain)
- Slow movement or loss of spontaneous movement (bradykinesia)
- Lack of balance
- Poor coordination
- Tires easily
- Handwriting becomes difficult due to shaking hands or weakened, nonresponsive muscles in the hands or arms
- Speech can become difficult
- Facial expressions may change
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
Because juvenile Parkinson's is so rare, your doctor will want to make a very careful diagnosis. A thorough family medical history will be taken. Your doctor will talk to you extensively about when your first noticed your child's symptoms, how often they occur and how long they last. In addition to a complete physical exam, your child will also undergo a neurological exam. Your doctor will focus the cause or causes of your child's symptoms. If an underlying condition is found treatment will be aimed at treating it.
Treatment of JP will depend on what's causing and how severe your child's symptoms are. Treatment may include:
- Physical and occupational therapy
- Speech therapy
- Supportive care such as neuropsychology
- Clinical trials
Our team will also work closely with you and your family so that you can encourage your child to stick to his or her therapy at home. We also offer support services for the whole family to help you cope with your situations and find understanding through others who have walked a similar journey to yours.
We're here to help.
If your child has been diagnosed, you probably have lots of questions. We can help. If you would like to schedule an appointment, refer a patient or speak to our staff, please call our offices at 682-885-2500.