Essential tremor—it’s one of the most common movement disorders in the world. A progressive condition, it starts with uncontrollable movement of the hands and can eventually spread to the voice (Katharine Hepburn’s voice had a very bad tremor), then the head, and finally to the legs. Even the early stages of essential tremor can be devastating and make life far more difficult. Sufferers may have trouble writing, eating, drinking, and preforming their jobs. Luckily, there is hope in the form of new non-invasive treatments.
What Is Essential Tremor?
Essential tremor is known as “essential” because it is a condition that is intrinsic to the body—something not caused by an external factor like a virus or alcohol use. It is a neurological condition that seems to strike people over age 40. In some cases, essential tremor seems to be caused by a genetic mutation. This trait is inherited and passed on to the children of sufferers. However, a genetic link does not mean that the root cause of the condition is known. “The root cause is unidentified, but it is connected to the cerebellum,” said John D. Rolston, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon with University of Utah Health.
Traditional Treatment Options
The traditional treatments for essential tremor have been either medication, which is roughly 50% effective, or surgery. The surgical option basically consists of implanting electrodes directly into the brain. The electrodes can then be activated for a form of deep brain stimulation. The primary drawback for each of these treatments is that it is impossible to know how effective they will be. Also, the patient has to deal with the side effects of medication or the trauma of brain surgery.
Currently, the best hope for those suffering from essential tremor lies with a new process that is quickly becoming an extremely popular option. It is a completely non-invasive procedure that can be done as a one-time outpatient procedure. “By using many different ultrasound, transducers are aimed at one small part of the brain, and each one emits a small amount of heat to the brain,” said Rolston.
The heat is directed to a small, pea-sized part of the cerebellum that is known to be associated with essential tremor. The result is a reduction or elimination of essential tremor in 50% of cases, which is similar to the results from medication.
This impressive advancement is the result of efforts from doctors and researchers from all around the world, but it is currently being employed by specialists at the University of Utah Health. It allows those who may have deteriorated to the point where they can no longer feed themselves the chance at a significantly improved quality of life.