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

Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that can take a devastating toll over the years. But Parkinson's often begins as barely detectable: a minor tremor, slight rigidity, or slow changes in your coordination may be the only sign that something is amiss.

However, an early diagnosis and intervention—which may include an exercise regimen, medication, and lifestyle changes—are key to managing Parkinson's symptoms. That's why medical experts say to look out for subtle signs that could point to the disease, including minor changes in how you walk. There are four walking-related symptoms in particular that may suggest a Parkinson's diagnosis, and you should talk to your doctor immediately if you notice any of them. Read on to find out what to look out for on your next walk.

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You may not be able to walk at your normal pace.

For many Parkinson's patients, walking can become a challenge, not least because of a phenomenon known as bradykinesia, which is when patients experience slow movements, according to the experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine. In particular, bradykinesia tends to affect rapidly repeated movements, making it difficult to coordinate one's steps at a usual pace.

Along with tremors and rigidity, bradykinesia is considered one of the three most common signs of Parkinson's disease, according to the European Parkinson's Disease Association (EPDA). In fact, the organization says that 98 percent of people with Parkinson's experience slowness of movement, and it is often among the first symptoms patients notice early on in the disease's progression.

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Your step size might be smaller.

Many Parkinson's patients who experience bradykinesia also experience hypokinesia, which is reduced amplitude or range of movement. "Hypokinesia refers to the fact that, in addition to being slow, the movements are also smaller than desired," explains a 2001 study published in the neurology journal Brain.

Due to the disconnect between expected or intended range of motion and actual motion, those with hypokinesia tend to experience more frequent injury. "Reduced movement amplitude can cause a step to be smaller, so that if a patient trips over an obstacle, she might not recover because she does not take a large enough step to avoid falling," according to a 2012 study published in the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine.

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Your arms stop swinging naturally when you walk.

In addition to a slower paced walk and shorter gait, some Parkinson's patients find that their arms stop swinging naturally when they walk. For one study published in 2012 in the journal Gait and Posture, Penn State researchers compared the arm movements in eight early stage Parkinson's patients to those of eight individuals who did not have Parkinson's disease. Each group walked for eight minutes with accelerometers affixed to their limbs to measure the speed and range of motion of their arms. The team found that those with Parkinson's displayed a significant arm swing asymmetry when walking compared with the control group, meaning one of their arms swung significantly less than the other.

"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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You may have trouble walking around corners, or feel as if your feet are glued to the floor.

Another change in your walk that may indicate Parkinson's is a motor disruption known as "freezing." As Johns Hopkins experts explain, "This is when you attempt to take a step forward and suddenly feel as though you can't, as though your foot is 'stuck' to the floor." The symptom tends to be most visible in patients whose Parkinson's disease has progressed over a longer period of time.

"Freezing normally occurs in specific situations such as when starting to walk, when stepping through a doorway, when attempting to turn a corner or when approaching a chair," explains the Australian health organization Parkinson's Victoria. "It is normally only temporary, and once past that position, the person can often start walking freely again." Episodes typically last just a few seconds, and are often triggered by multiple or complex tasks.

If you notice this symptom, or any other serious changes to the way you walk, it's important to talk to your doctor. "Sometimes these symptoms are mild and not really that disruptive," Gwenn Smith, PhD, director of the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neuropsychiatry at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, says on the Johns Hopkins Medicine site. "But they indicate that you should see a neurologist for an evaluation."

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