Essential tremor, a movement disorder that leads to uncontrollable, rhythmic shaking, primarily of the hands and head, is fairly common. According to the journal Tremor and Other Hyperkinetic Movements, it affects about seven million people in the US alone. It isn’t a life-threatening condition, and it doesn’t cause any serious medical problems, although the shaking may make daily activities hard to manage.
Parkinson’s disease is another condition that causes uncontrollable shaking, and many people wonder if they really have Parkinson’s when they have an essential tremor. The answer is “not usually,” but it helps to know a bit more about each of the disorders to make that determination.
At Memphis Neurology, with locations in Germantown, Tennessee, and Southaven, Mississippi, our expert team of neurologists believes that patient education is important for the treatment of any kind of medical condition, and they want you to understand what an essential tremor — and Parkinson’s disease — is and isn’t. They’ve put together this guide to provide you with that information.
Essential tremor (ET) basics
Essential tremors, also called benign essential tremors, have no precisely known cause. Scientists haven’t found any specific gene or cellular defect that’s linked to the condition. However, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), recent research suggests it can be triggered by changes in certain areas of the brain.
The tremors can start at any age, but you’re at a higher risk if you’re over 40-years-old. And while essential tremor can be inherited, called familial tremor, it also occurs in people with no family history of the condition. If you have a parent with ET, you have a 50% chance of inheriting it.
The ET movements themselves are small and rapid, and they often occur when you’re trying to do something mundane, such as tying your shoelace. These are called action tremors. Other people have tremors when they’re doing nothing at all, known as tremors at rest. The tremors can be so mild you barely notice they’re there, or they can be so severe they prevent you from performing your daily activities.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) basics
Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disease. Specifically, it damages the brain neurons that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and movement, among other things. While tremors are common, the disease more noticeably causes stiffness or slowing of any type of movement.
Parkinson's signs and symptoms usually begin on one side of your body and often remain worse on that side, even after symptoms begin to affect both sides. Symptoms may include:
- Tremor: often begins in hand or fingers, rubbing thumb and forefinger together; may tremble at rest
- Slowed movement (bradykinesia): movement slows, steps become shorter and may drag feet, and difficulty getting in and out of a chair
- Rigid muscles: can occur anywhere in the body, but often causes “face freezing” and difficulty walking; stiff muscles can be painful and limit the range of motion
- Impaired posture and balance
- Loss of automatic movements: includes smiling, blinking, and swinging your arms when you walk
- Speech changes: voice becomes softer and speech slurred or delivered in more of a monotone
- Writing changes: difficulty gripping pen; writing may appear small
Additional complications include:
- Cognitive problems (dementia) and thinking difficulties: usually in the later stages
- Depression and emotional changes: therapy may help you cope better with other symptoms
- Emotional changes: including fear, anxiety, or loss of motivation
- Swallowing problems. Saliva may accumulate, causing drooling
- Chewing and eating problems: can lead to choking and poor nutrition
- Sleep problems and sleep disorders
- Bladder problems: unable to control urine or having difficulty urinating
- Constipation: primarily due to a slower digestive tract
Essential tremor versus Parkinson’s disease
Many people associate tremors with Parkinson's disease, but ET and PD differ in key ways:
- Cause: ET has an unknown cause; PD results from dopamine neuron destruction
- Timing of tremors: ET occurs when you use your hands; PD tremors most prominent when hands are at sides or resting
- Associated conditions: ET doesn't cause other health problems; PD associated with stooped posture, slow movement, shuffling gait, and masses in the brain
- Parts of body affected: ET mainly involves head, hands, and voice; PD usually starts in the hands but spreads to the rest of the body
If you’re experiencing tremors, it’s always best to have a doctor check you out to make sure it’s nothing serious. Give the team at Memphis Neurology a call at either of our locations or schedule an appointment with us online today.