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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Understanding Essential Tremor

Essential tremor, sometimes referred to as ET, is a nerve disorder characterized by uncontrollable shaking -- or "tremors" -- in different parts and on different sides of the body. Areas affected often include the hands, arms, head, larynx, or voice box (making the voice sound shaky), tongue, chin, and other areas. The lower body is rarely affected.

Essential tremor is not a life-threatening disorder, unless it prevents a patient from caring for him/herself. Most people are able to live normal lives with this condition -- although they may find everyday activities like eating, dressing, or writing difficult, which leads them to withdraw socially. But it is only when the tremors become severe that they actually cause disability.

The term "tremor" is used to describe the uncontrollable shaking associated with ET, but that's a symptom that can be caused by a multitude of different factors and diseases -- including Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, fatigue after exercise, extreme emotional distress, brain tumors, some prescription drugs, metabolic abnormalities, and alcohol or drug withdrawal.

Tremors can be classified as those that occur when:

  • A person is moving (action tremor).
  • A person is not moving (rest tremor).
  • A person attempts to maintain posture against gravity (postural tremor), as in holding arms out in front of his/her body.

Essential tremor is a postural tremor, so symptoms are usually relieved with rest. But as the disorder advances, the tremors may begin to occur when the muscles are relaxed.

What Symptoms Indicate That I Have Essential Tremor Rather Than Another Type?

Symptoms more unique to essential tremor include:

  • Uncontrollable tremors that occur for brief periods of time.
  • A shaking voice.
  • Nodding head.
  • Tremors that worsen during periods of emotional stress.
  • Tremors that get worse with purposeful movement.
  • Tremor lessens with rest.
  • Tremors are the only symptom, although rarely a person with essential tremor may suffer from balance problems.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on October 11, 2014

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