Rigidity in Parkinson's Disease: A Primary Symptom

Rigidity impedes movement. Fortunately, there are treatments

Elderly man in braces buttoning up his shirt.. Credit: Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Rigidity — when your muscles are stiff and resist moving — is one of the primary symptoms of Parkinson's disease. It occurs when your muscles stiffen involuntarily.

Most people who have Parkinson's disease experience rigidity, usually in their shoulders, arms and leg muscles. In fact, one of the earliest symptoms of Parkinson's for some people is a stiff, painful shoulder. Rigidity also can occur in the hips and ankles, and in the neck and trunk (rigidity in your neck and trunk is called "axial rigidity").

Rigidity in Parkinson's disease can prevent you from moving easily, and this lack of easy movement can lead to more stiffness in a downward cycle. This symptom can cause discomfort or pain in your muscles.

What Does Rigidity Feel Like in Parkinson's?

When your muscles are rigid and you're having trouble moving them, it leads to several problems:

  • You may not be able to move your arms or legs very far, which means you'll take shorter steps and may not swing your arms as you walk.
  • You might find it difficult to do things that require small, careful movements, like button a shirt.
  • When your doctor tries to move your arm or leg around, it may move in a jerky "cogwheel" manner.
  • Axial rigidity may cause your spine to be curved, and you may stoop. Unfortunately, this stooped posture can cause more stiffness and rigidity.
  • You may have trouble with normal facial expressions, leading to a mask-like blank expression.

    A person with Parkinson's may have none of these problems, or that person may have all of them. They're likely to be progressive, meaning that as your illness gets worse, these problems will get worse, too.

    Treatment for Rigidity

    Rigidity in Parkinson's disease may be all but inevitable, but there are treatments that can improve your ability to move and ease any pain or discomfort you feel from your stiff muscles.

    First, there's exercise. Regular exercise can keep your muscles more flexible and will keep you moving generally. Although it can be difficult to get motivated to exercise, especially if your muscles don't want to cooperate, it's one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself.

    Talk to your doctor about starting a regular exercise routine that's aimed at improving your stiffness and ability to move. A physical therapist may be able to help you develop such a routine, while also working with you to improve your balance and reduce your risk of falls.

    If your face is rigid and mask-like, a speech therapist may be able to help you exercise those muscles and keep them more flexible. It's best to start this type of therapy soon after your diagnosis to have the most success with it.

    Finally, some drugs prescribed for Parkinson's disease can help to reduce rigidity. Specifically, Levodopa (L-dopa), frequently used to treat the condition, can help improve rigid muscles. Other medications may also have some effect.

    If you feel that your Parkinson's rigidity is interfering too much in your daily activities, or if it's causing you pain, talk to your doctor about it. There are effective treatments for it.


    Jankovic J. Parkinson's disease: clinical features and diagnosis. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2008 Apr;79(4):368-76. Review.

    National Institutes of Health SeniorHealth. Parkinson's Disease fact sheet. Accessed Feb. 27, 2016.

    Parkinson's Disease Foundation. Primary Motor Symptoms fact sheet. Accessed Feb. 27, 2016.

    Parkinson's UK. Rigidity in Parkinson's fact sheet. Accessed Feb. 27, 2016.

    Continue Reading