Writing a sentence, eating a spoonful of soup or buttoning a shirt may seem like simple tasks that don’t require your concentration. However, if you have a tremor, which causes your hands to shake, these tasks can be daunting.
Different therapies can help treat tremors and make tasks like eating a bowl of your favorite soup an activity you can again enjoy.
What is a tremor?
An essential tremor is an isolated, involuntary rhythmic shake of any part of the body. Most essential tremors affect the hands, but also can affect the head, voice and legs.
“Most times, it affects when a patient eats, drinks, writes, types or does other daily tasks,” said Mahala Earnhart, a Marshfield Clinic Neurology registered nurse.
About 10 million people in the United States have tremors. The condition can affect any age, gender or race. Fifty percent of tremors are hereditary, although no specific gene has been identified.
“Tremors can begin in childhood,” Earnhart said. “It will start with a hand that shakes when writing or taking a test. As the person ages, it can affect more day-to-day tasks.”
Treatment for tremors
Earnhart recommends having a neurological examination to assess the tremor and determine its cause.
“Once it’s determined to be a tremor, a number of therapies are available,” she said. “The most common therapies are medications, injections and occupational therapy.”
Surgery also can help with tremors. One special type of surgery, deep brain stimulation (DBS), has produced excellent results.
DBS therapy or surgery delivers electrical stimulation to an area in the brain to help treat a tremor. During DBS therapy, a small, pacemaker-like device is placed under the skin in the chest. This device sends electronic signals to an area in the brain that controls movement and these signals block some brain messages that cause disabling motor symptoms. Very thin wires connect it to the brain to enable signals to reach the source of tremor symptoms.
“It is an amazing therapy,” Earnhart said. “The initial programming of the patient’s deep brain stimulator can be very emotional. When we see complete resolution or at least significant reduction in the tremor, it is not uncommon for the patient and family to cry with joy. I usually cry with them. We are proud to provide this service for our patients.”
Is an essential tremor different from a Parkinson’s tremor?
An essential tremor has one major difference from Parkinson’s tremors. Parkinson’s tremors can happen when the body is at rest, or in voluntary motion.
Essential tremors happen when the person is doing an intentional movement. If the person is sitting or relaxing, there’s no tremor. The tremor is noticeable when the person engages in an intentional movement like writing or eating.
“When a patient’s Parkinson’s disease is severe it also will be present with intentional movements,” Earnhart said. “Usually, there’s a clear difference between the two.”
If a person has a tremor, Earnhart recommends the person talk with his or her doctor.