Essential tremor is a neurological condition characterized by uncontrollable tremor of the extremities, commonly the hands, arms, and legs. Tremors are not necessarily restricted to these areas and can impact the head and even the voice.
This is a very common disorder and affects as many as 5% of people over the age of 65 years old. However, many people are afflicted at a much earlier age, with diagnosis of patients as early as adolescence. Over seven million people in the United States have a tremor that could be classified as essential tremor.
Sometimes, essential tremor can be diagnosed through patient history and a physical examination from your family doctor. However, it is best diagnosed by a physical examination from a specialized movement disorder neurologist.
Not all tremors are due to essential tremor – other causes of tremors include Parkinson’s disease, tremors associated with multiple sclerosis, or tremors associated with a traumatic brain injury. Tremors caused by these other sources can call for different treatment plans than an essential tremor.
Currently, it is not known exactly what causes essential tremor. Research indicates that essential tremor has a genetic component and it generally runs in families – it’s even been referred to as familial tremor. While the true cause is not yet discovered, physicians do know the problem is in a part of the brain controlling certain movements called the ventral intermediate nucleus (VIM) in the thalamus. In this part of the brain, tremors are caused by overactive cells. By treating this location, the symptoms of essential tremor can be greatly reduced.
Essential tremor is an action tremor – that is, it is associated with movement of the affected extremity and is not present when at rest. Tremors tend to be mild at first and progress over time to become more severe. For some, the tremor becomes so severe that it interferes significantly with daily activities like eating, dressing, and writing. In many instances, caregivers are needed to assist with various activities.