What Is a Tremor a Sign of?   

What Is a Tremor a Sign of?

hand shaking from a tremor while holding a glass of water
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Anton Svetlanov, D.O.
Philip A. Hanna, M.D., FAAN
It can be unnerving to experience a tremor—a rhythmic, involuntary shaking of the body part  (limb, head or jaw, for example) that not only signals that something is wrong, but also represents a startling loss of control. Oftentimes tremors are not life-threatening, but in some cases, they can be a symptom of a more serious condition.

“Tremors of all kinds can be debilitating, and more than that, sometimes the frustration and embarrassment that comes with experiencing one can be as severe as the physical effects themselves,” says Philip A. Hanna, M.D., FAAN, the director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at the Neuroscience Institute at JFK University Medical Center.

Essential Tremor

The most common form is called essential tremor, which most frequently affects the hands but can also occur in the arms, legs, head or torso. Essential tremor also can affect a person’s vocal cords, leading to a shaky voice. Regarded as largely benign, these tremors can be so mild that they don’t require treatment, or in other cases, they can substantially impair a person’s ability to function.

Age and hereditary risk are among the chief risk factors for essential tremor, while temporal conditions such as stress, fever, exhaustion and low blood sugar, or certain medications may either cause or exacerbate tremors. People often first experience essential tremor in middle age, and the symptoms can become more pronounced and debilitating with age.

When to See a Doctor

Even though most tremors are harmless, it’s important to see a doctor after experiencing one for the first time. A neurologist can help diagnose your condition and mitigate the effects of tremors through:
  • Medications such as the beta-blocker propranolol 
  • Physical therapy to increase muscle strength and coordination
  • Surgery in severe cases—deep-brain stimulation (DBS) and focused ultrasound ablation

    It’s also important to see a neurologist after experiencing a tremor because the tremor may point to a more serious neurological condition, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or stroke. 

    The examination usually consists of both physical and neurological components, with doctors checking to see where in the body the tremors are occurring, as well as whether tremors occur when muscles are in use or at rest. Doctors will also look for indicators such as impaired speed or balance and may also collect blood and urine samples to test for thyroid malfunction.

    “Tremors can be a nuisance—and they can also be a sign of a serious condition that needs to be addressed,” says neurologist and movement disorder specialist, Anton Svetlanov, D.O. “Even for people experiencing fairly mild tremors, it’s wise to see a doctor, both because we may be able to help manage symptoms and provide insight into whether there’s a more serious issue.”

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