What’s Rigidity in Parkinson’s Disease?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 01, 2021
4 min read

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the central nervous system that gets worse over time with no cure. Because it targets the nervous system, it impairs movement. 

Rigidity is one of the leading symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and it’s characterized by muscle stiffness. While the level of severity varies, there are treatment options available that can lessen the intensity and slow the progression of rigidity. 

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Symptoms can differ between people and may go unnoticed early in development. They tend to start and be worse on one side of the body. Both sides are eventually affected by Parkinson’s disease. 

Common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include: 

  • Tremors and shaking
  • Bradykinesia, or slowed movement
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Dystonia, or muscle spasms and cramps
  • Hunched posture

As the symptoms worsen, secondary symptoms develop due to the loss of motor control. Some of the symptoms include: 

  • Loss of facial expressions
  • Changes in voice
  • Changes in handwriting
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Problems with chewing, swallowing, and eating
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome

Causes of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease causes certain nerve cells to break down in the brain. The loss of nerve cells, or neurons, leads to irregular brain activity and impaired motor function. 

It’s unknown what exactly causes Parkinson’s disease. While certain genetic variations can lead to Parkinson’s disease, these are uncommon. There’s no concrete way to prevent Parkinson's from developing. 

Adult males who are 60 and older are more at risk for developing Parkinson’s disease. If you have a lot of family members with Parkinson’s disease, you may be at a higher risk. 

Diagnosing Parkinson’s disease. It’s difficult to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. There aren’t tests that detect it. Your doctor or a neurologist will diagnose it based on your symptoms and medical history. 

Treating Parkinson’s disease. There’s no cure. Medications, lifestyle changes, and physical therapy are used to manage the symptoms

Muscle rigidity due to Parkinson’s disease can be misdiagnosed as arthritis or general tightness from aging. Rigidity can affect your legs, arms, torso, and face. 

What rigidity feels like. Your muscles may feel tight and difficult to move. They may also stiffen involuntarily like a muscle spasm. This stiffness can also cause joint and muscle pain. 

Rigidity and everyday life. This type of stiffness can start impacting your normal functions. Simple tasks like cleaning, exercise, and fulfilling hobbies can become difficult because of rigidity. You may also experience: 

  • Stiffness in your facial muscles that make it difficult to express yourself
  • Stiffness while sleeping that make it difficult to get comfortable and sleep well
  • Constant tension in your muscles that leads to muscle fatigue and a lack of energy
  • Difficulty with certain motor skills, like writing or getting dressed
  • Stiffness in your arms that make it harder to maintain balance while walking

Lead pipe rigidity. This type of stiffness is characterized by a feeling of frozen muscles. The muscles feel stuck and unable to move. 

Attempts to move those limbs are met with resistance throughout the motion. They feel stiff and heavy like a “lead pipe” for sustained periods of time.

Cogwheel rigidity. This type of rigidity is similar to muscle spasms. The limbs experiencing the stiffness can move in small jerking motions, like a ratchet. You may even feel small clicking sensations when moving your arm. 

The jerking motion can happen no matter how slow or fast you move. Cogwheel rigidity can make moving risky. For example, attempting to cook or operate machinery when experiencing cogwheel rigidity could lead to dangerous mishaps. 

Your doctor will diagnose rigidity by having you demonstrate various motor functions, like joint extension and flexing your muscles. 

Treatment options for managing Parkinson’s disease work for managing rigidity. But if you’ve caught the rigidity early and want to get ahead of future discomfort, there are treatment options available. 

Exercise. Specifically, exercise that focuses on flexibility and stretching your muscles. It’s recommended that you stretch at least once per day. You can do this by having a stretching routine or using a program like yoga. 

It can be difficult to start exercising when your muscles feel tight. This can compound and make you feel worse for not exercising. Break that cycle, take the first step, and work toward your overall health. 

Soaks. Warm baths with Epsom salts help relax your muscles. This can provide instant relief for muscle stiffness and prolong your muscle effectiveness. 

Physical therapy. Physical therapy can help target rigidity and soothe stiffness. It can also help you find routines and exercises that work for you. Speech therapy can be used to treat face muscle rigidity. 

Medications. Your doctor can recommend medications to help with muscle stiffness. Many medications can be used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Your doctor will work with you to develop a treatment plan.