The realization that your body isn’t responding as well as it used to can be frightening and make people feel insecure. This is true even with relatively small changes – such as regular vision loss. It can be especially scary when you find that in addition to your body not responding as you’re used to, you notice new symptoms, such as tremors. That feeling of concern can be compounded if you’re misdiagnosed. There are lots of diseases that have tremor as a symptom – of which the most well-known is Parkinson’s disease. In fact, it’s so well known that even if you have something known as essential tremor, there is a chance you’ll be misdiagnosed as having Parkinson’s. It’s important to know the difference between the two disorders because the prognosis is so very different.
A Disorder of the Nervous System
Essential tremor is a disorder of the nervous system that causes – you guessed it – tremors. More specifically, it causes involuntary and rhythmic shaking that can affect any part of your body, but most often it affects the hands. Think about all the things you need your hands for and it’s easy to see why essential tremor can be a very difficult disease to live with. Writing, typing, drinking a glass of water, blow drying your hair – all of these movements that we tend to take for granted are more complicated when trying to control a constant tremor while doing them – and these tremors often can’t be voluntarily controlled.
Why Is Essential Tremor Misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s (and What Makes Parkinson’s Different)?
Essential tremor is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s because the most prevalent symptom of both is a tremor – or involuntary shaking. While the diseases are both neurological in nature, they aren’t the same disease.
Essential tremor usually begins gradually on one side of the body. As you move, you’ll probably notice the tremor getting worse, and it will likely happen in your hands first. Essential tremor can include an involuntary head nod or head shake as well, and many patients find their condition worsens when coupled with emotional stress, fatigue, caffeine, or being either very hot or very cold.
Parkinson’s is different. With Parkinson’s, hand tremors are more common when your hands are resting, rather than when you’re moving them. Parkinson’s also is associated with other conditions – a shuffling gait, stooped posture, and slow movement. Essential tremor isn’t associated with these symptoms. Unlike essential tremor, Parkinson’s tends to start in your hands and can eventually affect your legs, chin, and gradually other parts of your body, whereas essential tremor tends to affect your hands, head, and voice.
There isn’t a test to check for essential tremor, so diagnosing the disease usually involves checking your family history, as it is believed it stems from a genetic mutation that you would be predisposed to if someone in your family also had the disorder. Your doctor will likely diagnose you with essential tremor by checking into this history and then ruling out other disorders. Depending on how severe your diagnosis is, treatment may include medication, physical therapy, or deep brain stimulation therapy surgery in very severe cases.
Dr. Garza is a board-certified neurologist and Chief of Neurology at Kelsey-Seybold. He cares for patients at the Berthelsen Main Campus and at Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. He believes in “healing through smart medicine, compassion, and empathy.”