Essential Tremor Throughout History

We have no way of knowing if human beings have experienced tremors since the dawn of our remote ancestors. I have a hunch that essential tremor (ET) goes well back before recorded history. However, once the ancients were able to set down their observations on papyrus, parchment, or paper, “the shakes” have been documented throughout the ages.

I found a fascinating article on the subject by Jean P. Hubble, M.D.i She clearly put a great deal of research into it, and she cites evolving medical testimony from ancient writings through modern times. Not only does she include healers and scientists, but she even turns to literature and art to reveal how tremors have been viewed in earlier times.

With all due credit to Dr. Hubble, I want to share sections of her article that I found especially noteworthy or engaging.

  • Ancient India and Egypt – both of these cultures developed medical practices that recognized chronic disease conditions. Some historians feel that certain 4,000-year old Ayurvedic practices in India were aimed at managing tremors. Medical documents from Egypt in 1200 B.C. also appear to mention tremors.
  • Tremors are mentioned in the Bible’s Old Testament. The book of Ecclesiastes (12:3) mentions trembling movements seen in the elderly; in Psalms (99:1) it is noted that trembling can result from fear, and Dr. Hubble remarks that many people with ET bind their tremors worsen with strong, intense emotions and anxiety.
  • In second century A.D. Greece, the physician Galen wrote a paper, “On Tremor, Palpitation, Spasm and Rigor” in which he describes “the rhythmic nature of tremor and details other involuntary body movements.”ii
  • When the Renaissance brought a flourishing of the arts, Dr. Hubble note that Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida contains a description of an aged man struggling to dress himself due to “faint defects of age … with a palsy, fumbling on his gorget, shake in and out the rivet.” She also credits Leonardo da Vinci, whose anatomical sketches still inspire awe, with depicting the plight of so many people with ET when he wrote, “…you will see…those who…move their trembling parts, such as their heads or hands without permission of the soul; (the) soul with all its forces cannot prevent these parts from trembling.” While we don’t know what remedies were tried during their lifetimes, 72 years after Shakespeare died, “The Irish scientist Robert Boyle suggested chocolate as a remedy for tremor in 1688. It is not known if this helped the tremor, but it is suspected that the medicine was enjoyed.”
  • Closer to our own time, physicians in the 18th and 19th centuries wrote several papers not only specifying tremors and related symptoms, but also recognizing that life stresses can worsen tremor. In Dr. James Parkinson’s 1817 essay on the condition that eventually took on his name (Parkinson’s disease) he distinguished between that and essential tremor. Then, in 1887, an account by Dr. C. L. Dana on tremor in a single family brought hereditary factors to light.

Dr. Hubble brings her topic around to today’s medicine. While we now have medications that have modest success, we still don’t know what causes ET, nor do we have a cure for it.

An effective treatment

Thankfully, we don’t have to know the exact cause in order to create and effective therapy that does not use medications or surgery. MRI-guided Focused Ultrasound is a noninvasive outpatient procedure that interrupts the relay circuit in the brain so abnormal brain transmissions can’t reach the hands. It relies on beams of ultrasound that precisely converge on a tiny area of the brain where they create enough heat to ablate (destroy) the area that forwards those transmissions.

To learn more, visit Sperling Neurosurgery Associates.

iHubble, Jean. “The History of Tremor.” Essential Tremor: What the Experts Say.” 3rd Edition, pp. 15-16. International Essential Tremor Foundation, 2014.


About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Neurosurgery Associates.

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