Essential tremor (ET) is a condition characterized by involuntary shaking or trembling of an affected body part. There are several circumstances and medical conditions that can cause this type of movement, some more severe than others. For example, tremors can happen temporarily when a person is anxious, after long-term exposure to a toxic substance, such as mercury, or during withdrawal from alcohol or drug addiction. However, serious degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis can result in chronic tremors.
A diagnosis of ET often means ruling out other, more worrisome diseases. One characteristic that can help identify it is a genetic component – ET often runs in families. For instance, actress Katherine Hepburn had ET of the head and voice, which she said he had inherited from her grandfather. On the other hand, not everyone with ET can trace it back to an ancestor, so the appearance of one or more symptoms can be scary. Here are common symptoms that warrant an evaluation by a doctor:
- Shaking, trembling or other uncontrollable rhythmic movement that occurs during intentional activity such as reaching for an object or picking up a glass of water to drink.
- Initially, only one side of the body may be affected but gradually tremor affects the other side as well
- Repetitive head movement that looks like slight nodding “yes” or shaking side to side like “no”
- Tremor lessons or stops when the body part is at rest
- Handwriting begins to look scribbly
- Holding a utensil to eat becomes difficult
- Tremor gets worse during stress, eases off when tension relaxes and emotions die down
- Tremor diminishes with alcohol consumption (not true in every case, but may be a telltale sign)
Any of these signs is an even stronger indicator of ET if there is a family history. It is estimated that upwards of 50% of cases have a hereditary component. ET can begin at any age, though adult onset is the most common, especially in later years.
On a positive note, ET is not a life-threatening illness, and there are many strategies for managing tremor or compensating for the challenges it poses to one’s lifestyle. As with most physical disorders, early diagnosis allows the greatest range of treatment options. Talk to your doctor if you or a loved one is worried about having ET.