Essential Tremor

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Essential tremor is a progressive neurological condition that causes uncontrollable shaking or trembling of the hands, head, voice, and sometimes the legs or lower body. Essential tremor is often mistaken for Parkinson’s disease and dystonia, two neurological conditions with very similar symptoms; essential tremor can occur along with either of those disorders. (Read more about Parkinson’s disease and dystonia).

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Essential tremor is the most common of all movement disorders. The condition can occur at any age, but most commonly affects adults over the age of 60. (Many believed famous actress Katherine Hepburn had Parkinson’s disease in her golden years, but she in fact had essential tremor.)

Essential tremor is not life-threatening, and most people can live relatively normal lives. Sometimes the condition will make everyday activities such as washing, eating, and writing challenging, and in extreme cases may prevent a person from caring for him or herself. It is only then that the condition causes disability.

While there is no cure for essential tremor, there are medications that can help patients improve their quality of life. When the symptoms are severe enough to prevent normal activities and reduce quality of life, deep brain stimulation surgery can be very helpful to improve or even eliminate the tremors. (See Surgery for Essential Tremor.)

What Causes Essential Tremor?

The cause of essential tremor is not completely understood. It is thought that certain regions of the brain send abnormal signals to the muscles, causing tremors. These brain regions include the cerebellum, red nucleus, globus pallidus, thalamus, and cortex.

Genetics is thought to contribute to the cause of essential tremors in approximately half of those with the condition. When more than one family member has the condition, it is called familial tremor and points to a genetic cause, although specific genetic defects have not been clearly identified yet. Up to 50 percent of people born to a parent with essential tremor will carry the gene but may never experience any symptoms of the condition.

The Movement Disorders service of the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center is a leader in the diagnosis and treatment of essential tremor. Led by pioneering researcher and neurosurgeon Michael Kaplitt, M.D., Ph.D., the Movement Disorder service provides state-of-the-art options for essential tremor treatment, including minimally invasive deep brain stimulation surgery. (See Surgery for Essential Tremor.)

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Reviewed by Michael Kaplitt, MD, PhD
Last reviewed/last updated: April 2015