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Parkinson’s? Or Essential Tremor?

If your hand routinely shakes when you hold a drink, sign your name, or tap a
number into your cell phone, you may fear that you’re on the way to Parkinson’s
disease. But what you’re more likely to have is something that has nothing to do
with Parkinson’s.

It’s called essential tremor. Roughly, 10 million people in the U.S. have essential
tremor, according to the International Essential Tremor Foundation. Essential
tremor is a common neurological condition that causes tremors of the hands
during movement, and can also affect the head, voice, or legs.

Unlike Parkinson’s, which is a degenerative disease that causes someone to lose
brain cells, essential tremor is not a degenerative disorder. According to Dr.
Michael Rezak, director of the Movement Disorders Center at Northwestern
Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. “Essential tremor results
from a malfunction of certain neurons, but you don’t lose brain cells, and you don’t
lose gait or balance.”

Usually, essential tremor happens when performing a movement-oriented activity
such as eating, drinking, writing, typing or brushing teeth. The severity can range
from a barely noticeable trembling to a severe, disabling tremor that has a
significant impact on the ability to perform everyday activities. The tremors are
aggravated by anxiety, fatigue, caffeine, and some medications. Remember
Katharine Hepburn? Her condition was an example of advanced essential tremor
affecting her voice, head and arms, as well as her hands.

If your parents had essential tremor, there’s a 50:50 chance you will get it. The
biggest problem with essential tremor is that it typically gets worse as you get

What About Treatment?

Resistance training. I first learned about it a couple of years ago when researchers
reported on a study that looked at 10 men and women with essential tremor. First,
they tested all of them with a battery of manual dexterity and isometric force
tremor assessments. Then, then put them through a six-week program of
resistance training that focused on their arms, hands, and shoulders. At the end of
the six weeks, they found that the stronger the patients had become, the more
improvement was seen with their tremors. The researchers concluded that,
“These findings suggest that a generalized upper limb resistance training program
has the potential to improve aspects of manual dexterity and reduce force tremor
in older essential tremor patients.”

by Dr. Frank Shallenberger, MD