Are You Shaky? Your Doctor Can Help
Imagine your hands resting peacefully in your lap – but the moment you reach for something, they begin to shake involuntarily, causing you to fumble with the phone, spill your coffee or scribble on your checkbook. The simplest tasks become impossible.
The cause may be essential tremor, a common movement disorder that affects up to 10 percent of the population, according to movement disorders neurologist Benjamin Walter, MD. The disease is hereditary, and you are more likely to have it if one of your parents or siblings has it. Patients may experience tremors in the head, neck and voice, but it is most common in the arms.
Some people have tremors all the time, which may be a sign of other conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease. But those with essential tremor usually only experience shaking when they try to do something like reach for a book or pick up a pen. “It interferes at just the moment when you’re trying to do something functional and important,” says Dr. Walter.
Essential tremor is also known as benign tremor – a term that Dr. Walter dislikes. “The word benign suggests that it’s not a problem,” he says, “but it can significantly affect quality of life.” Patients with essential tremor often cannot work or feed and dress themselves. Some feel socially embarrassed and avoid going out in public. “It robs them of the pleasures of life,” says Dr. Walter. “The psychological toll is tremendous.”
If you suspect you may be suffering from essential tremor, it’s important to seek medical help, Dr. Walter says. “We want people to understand that if they’re suffering from this disorder, they have great options to decrease or eliminate the problem.” Medicine is usually the first approach. According to Dr. Walter, the right combination of medicine can significantly improve function in 50 percent of cases.
Surgery is also an option – and it has an even higher success rate. Dr. Walter explains that in about 80 percent of cases, surgery can significantly reduce or completely eliminate tremor. One surgical approach involves a brain pacemaker. “This causes the tremor to melt away, allowing patients to suddenly be able to do something they may not have been able to do for the past 20 or 30 years.”
Benjamin Walter, MD, is the Director of the Movement Disorders Center and the Medical Director of the Deep Brain Stimulation Program at University Hospitals Case Medical Center.