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What is Paralysis Agitans?

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While you may have never heard of the term “paralysis agitans,” chances are that you already know the disease. Paralysis agitans, which literally means “shaking palsy,” is another term for Parkinson’s disease.

When the disease was first discovered by Dr. James Parkinson in 1817, he described the condition as “the shaking palsy,” due to the presenting symptoms.

In the United States, about 50,000 to 60,000 people are diagnosed with this condition each year, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. Paralysis agitans is a movement disorder, which results from the dying of neurons in the substantia nigra, an area of the brain, that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Without these neurons, the brain does not have the same supply of dopamine, which sends signals between the substantia nigra and another area of the brain, called the corpus striatum, to make smooth movements. As a result, patients have difficulty moving.

Paralysis agitans has four main motor symptoms: postural instability, bradykinesia, rigidity and tremors.

With postural instability, the patient has impaired balance, which affects walking. Complications of paralysis agitans include falls.

Bradykinesia is a slowness of movement. The patient can have difficulty either starting or continuing a movement.

The rigidity, or stiffness, can occur in the patient’s limbs and trunk.

The tremors of paralysis agitans can occur when the patient’s arm or leg is at rest, or when she is holding that limb out. They go away when the patient moves.

MedlinePlus noted that over time, a patient with paralysis agitans can also have the tremors in her feet, head, tongue or lips.

The progression of symptoms in paralysis agitans can take 20 or more years, though the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke noted that the disease may progress faster in certain patients. Using the Hoehn and Yahr scale, the progression of paralysis agitans can be broken up into five stages.

In the first stage, the patient has symptoms on only one side of her body.

When the disease progresses to stage two, the patient has symptoms that affect both side of her body, but does not have balance problems.

With stage three of paralysis agitans, the patient experiences balance impairment, but is physically independent.

By stage four, the level of disability is severe, though the patient can still stand or walk without needing help.

In the last stage of paralysis agitans, stage five, the patient is bound to either a wheelchair or bed unless she has assistance to move.


National Parkinson Foundation. Parkinson’s Disease (PD) Overview. Web. 3 October 2011

Merriam-Webster. Paralysis Agitans. Web. 3 October. 2011

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Parkinson’s Disease: Hope Through Research. Web. 3 October 2011

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Parkinson’s Disease. Web. 3 October 2011

Reviewed October 3, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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