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What Do You Know About Essential Tremor?

Imagine not being able to drink from a glass of water without spilling it all over yourself, or not having the ability to sign your own name. These are just a few of the daily challenges of individuals living with essential tremor (ET).

ET is a neurological condition which causes a rhythmic trembling of the hands, head, voice, legs or trunk. It is often confused with Parkinson’s disease, although it is eight times more common, affecting an estimated 7 to 10 million Americans and millions more worldwide.

Included among these millions are public figures of today and yesterday like actress Dee Wallace, Academy Award winning filmmaker Adam McKay, English actor and film director Lord Julian Fellowes and actress Katharine Hepburn.

March is National Essential Tremor Awareness Month (NETA), a time dedicated to educating the public about this condition and advocating for better treatments and a cure. The effort is coordinated by the International Essential Tremor Foundation (IETF), the leading organization in the world dedicated to awareness, education, research and support for people impacted by ET. This year’s NETA Month theme is “We Can Weather ET Together.”

“Anyone who has essential tremor or knows someone who does, has spent a countless amount of time trying to explain it to others to erase stigmas and prevent judgments,” said Patrick McCartney, IETF executive director. “During National Essential Tremor Awareness Month, we challenge everyone out there who knows about ET to spend some time educating others to increase understanding.”

Though not life threatening, ET can be life-debilitating. Because it is an action tremor, it occurs when trying to perform daily activities such as eating, drinking, writing, typing, shaving, etc. The severity of the tremor can vary based on the activity being performed, and often worsens with stress and fatigue. Though more prevalent in the 65+ age group, ET affects people of all ages, even teenagers and toddlers. ET is also hereditary.

Essential Tremor vs. Parkinson's Disease

Many people associate tremors with Parkinson's disease, but the two conditions differ in key ways.

First, there’s the timing of tremors. Essential tremor of the hands usually occurs when you use your hands. Tremors from Parkinson's disease are most prominent when your hands are at your sides or resting in your lap.

The second way involves associated conditions. Essential tremor doesn't cause other health problems, but Parkinson's disease is associated with stooped posture, slow movement, and dragging the feet when walking. However, people with essential tremor sometimes develop other neurological signs and symptoms, such as an unsteady walk.

The third difference involves the parts of the body affected. Essential tremor mainly involves your hands, head, and voice. Parkinson's disease tremors usually start in your hands, and can affect your legs, chin, and other parts of your body.

Social Impact

ET can have a big impact on a person’s social life. “Many people with essential tremors are embarrassed," said Life Care Coordinator Mary Jo Johnson. "Many start withdrawing from social activities, and some feel pressure to explain that it’s not Parkinson’s disease. That’s why we need to make more people aware of the condition. It’s a way to reduce the stigma.”

Life Care Coordinator Robin Lacrimosa sees people with ET who attempt to hide the condition. “If a person has tremors in the hands, he may clasp them together so people can’t see the tremor,” she said. "Fortunately, there are many assistive devices available today to help people with ET lead an active life. I’ve seen people use the spoons where the bowl of the spoon rotates as your hand moves. The spoon has a really deep bowl and it's weighted. No matter which way your hand turns, the bowl that has the soup in it stays until it gets to your mouth."

For Mary Jo, the key is finding ways to adapt. "We all live life differently," she added. “Some people have diabetes, some have had a stroke, some people are deaf, and others are vision impaired. So if you find yourself having to live life differently outside of what society terms as normal, then you simply have to adapt.”

Fortunately, as more people learn about ET and the resources available, adapting to a new normal with an ET diagnosis is getting easier.


Find links to resources and assistive devices here:

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