Essential Tremor Vs. Parkinson's Tremors: A Guide to The Major Differences
When people think of Parkinson's disease, they may picture the shaking hands commonly associated with the condition. Persistent shaking of hands and limbs—also known as tremor—can make it difficult to write a grocery list, hold a cup of tea, button a shirt and apply makeup, among other routine tasks. When tremors interfere with daily life, it can be very disruptive. While tremors are a hallmark of Parkinson's patients, there are other diseases similar to Parkinson's that can cause tremors.
What is the difference between tremors and Parkinson's disease?
While the majority of Parkinson's patients experience tremors, not everyone who has tremors has Parkinson's. Tremors are also a symptom of other conditions, such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, certain medicines, alcohol poisoning or anxiety.
Tremor is an unintentional, rhythmic muscle contraction that leads to shaking in one or more parts of the body. Parkinson's disease is a neurological disorder that causes tremors, stiffness in limbs and loss of coordination.
The most significant difference between tremor associated with Parkinson's disease and tremor associated with other conditions is that Parkinson's tremor is typically a "resting tremor," meaning it is present when an individual is at rest and goes away when the individual is active. Tremors in most other conditions are classified as "action tremor," meaning shaking increases when a person is active and decreases when the person is at rest.
While Parkinson's is typically the most widely-known disease associated with tremor, a condition called essential tremor is more common, affecting approximately 5% of people aged 65 and older.
What is the difference between essential tremor and Parkinson's?
The exact cause of essential tremor is unknown while Parkinson's disease is better understood.
In Parkinson's disease, neurons located in the part of the brain that controls movement become impaired or die. These neurons usually produce a chemical called dopamine which enables regular body movements. When the neurons can't produce necessary levels of dopamine, tremors can occur, along with rigidity of limbs and decreased coordination.
Essential tremor is marked by one primary symptom:
- Tremor, mainly while active
Parkinson's disease is marked by four primary symptoms:
- Tremor, mainly at rest
- Stiffness of the trunk and limbs
- Slow or sluggish movements
- Impaired coordination and balance
How do you know if you have a Parkinson's tremor vs. essential tremor?
Both essential tremor and Parkinson's disease appear during middle age and prevalence increases in older populations. However, a Parkinson's disease tremor has notable differences from essential tremor.
Parkinson's Disease Tremor:
- Occurs mainly in the hands and limbs
- Primarily occurs on one side of the body
- Presents with other symptoms like stiff limbs and loss of coordination
- Occurs mainly in the hands, head and voice
- Occurs on both sides of the body
- Does not present with other symptoms
A neurologist can take a thorough medical history and conduct an exam and evaluation to determine if a patient's tremor is caused by Parkinson's disease or another condition.
Who is likely to contract essential tremor and Parkinson's disease?
They are likely to affect different populations of people.
- Men are 1.5 times more likely to have Parkinson's disease than women
- Parkinson's disease is rarely hereditary
- Affects men and women equally
- Is heritable and can be seen in other family members 50% of the time
Is treatment different for essential tremor vs. Parkinson's disease?
There is no cure for essential tremor or Parkinson's disease but there are treatments available to manage symptoms. People with essential tremor and Parkinson's can lead long and satisfying lives with medication, physical therapy and other forms of treatment.
A lesser-known side effect of essential tremor and Parkinson's disease is a weakened voice, which can lead to serious speech and swallowing issues. Speech therapy and innovative programs like the Parkinson Voice Project can help patients preserve their voice and improve their quality of life.
There are other causes of tremor including side effects from medications, alcohol or substance abuse, metabolic-induced tremor and anxiety-induced tremor. If you are experiencing tremor, write down symptoms you are having and be as detailed as possible. Note what you were doing before, during and after the tremor.
Schedule an appointment with a provider to discuss your symptoms and begin to find the right treatment for you.