What is an Essential Tremor?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Essential tremor is a very common form of tremor which usually starts in the arms. This condition is usually not harmful, but it can be disabling and frustrating. Because essential tremor is sometimes confused with Parkinson's disease, which is a serious condition, it is important to go to a doctor for treatment to confirm that essential tremor is the cause of the shaking. In addition, a doctor may be able to provide assistance to help the patient manage the condition and to improve quality of life.


The cause of essential tremor, which is more common in women, is not really understood. It may be related to the nerves in the affected area, or caused by misfiring in the brain. The condition is progressive, growing worse over time, and while it usually starts in the arms, it can occur anywhere in the body. Most commonly, the upper torso is affected.

Patients usually notice essential tremor because they have trouble writing and engaging in other voluntary movements. They may also develop speech problems if their voiceboxes or tongues are involved. In some cases, the tremors are mild and irritating but not debilitating. In other instances, essential tremor makes it very hard for a patient to engage in even basic tasks like buttoning a shirt or eating, and supportive care may be needed.

When this condition has an onset late in life, it appears to be linked with dementia. There also seems to be a genetic component with this condition, as people with a family history of tremors are far more likely to develop essential tremor. When patients go to the doctor for a tremor, they should gather up as much family history as possible, and they should be able to describe when and where the tremors started, and what kind of activities seem to make them worse, as these can be important clues to diagnosis.

This condition used to be known as benign essential tremor, referencing the fact that it wasn't caused by an underlying malignancy. However, the “benign” has since been dropped in recognition of the fact that this condition can be severely debilitating for the patient.

Rest often helps patients manage an essential tremor. Medications can also be used to cut down on the shaking, and physical therapy can sometimes improve muscle control and make it easier for patients to engage in various tasks. Patients with severe tremors may also benefit from surgery.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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