A tremor is an involuntary, somewhat rhythmic, muscle contraction and relaxation involving oscillations or twitching movements of one or more body parts. It is the most common of all involuntary movements and can affect the hands, arms, eyes, face, head, vocal folds, trunk, and legs. Most tremors occur in the hands. In some people, a tremor is a symptom of another neurological disorder. A very common tremor is the teeth chattering, usually induced by cold temperatures or by fear.
Tremor can be a symptom associated with disorders in those parts of the brain that control muscles throughout the body or in particular areas, such as the hands. Neurological disorders or conditions that can produce tremor include multiple sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain injury, chronic kidney disease and a number of neurodegenerative diseases that damage or destroy parts of the brainstem or the cerebellum, Parkinson’s disease being the one most often associated with tremor. Other causes include the use of drugs (such as amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine, corticosteroids, SSRIs) or alcohol, mercury poisoning, or the withdrawal of drugs such as alcohol or benzodiazepine. Tremors can also be seen in infants with phenylketonuria (PKU), overactive thyroid or liver failure. Tremors can be an indication of hypoglycemia, along with palpitations, sweating and anxiety. Tremor can also be caused by lack of sleep, lack of vitamins, or increased stress. Deficiencies of magnesium and thiamine have also been known to cause tremor or shaking, which resolves when the deficiency is corrected. See magnesium in biology. Some forms of tremor are inherited and run in families, while others have no known cause. Tremors can also be caused by some spider bites, e.g. the redback spider of Australia.
Characteristics may include a rhythmic shaking in the hands, arms, head, legs, or trunk; shaky voice; and problems holding things such as a fork or pen. Some tremors may be triggered by or become exacerbated during times of stress or strong emotion, when the individual is physically exhausted, or during certain postures or movements.
Tremor may occur at any age but is most common in middle-age and older persons. It may be occasional, temporary, or occur intermittently. Tremor affects men and women equally.
Types of tremors
Tremor is most commonly classified by clinical features and cause or origin. Some of the better known forms of tremor, with their symptoms, include the following:
- Cerebellar tremor (also known as intention tremor) is a slow, broad tremor of the extremities that occurs at the end of a purposeful movement, such as trying to press a button or touching a finger to the tip of one’s nose. Cerebellar tremor is caused by lesions in or damage to the cerebellum resulting from stroke, tumor, or disease such as multiple sclerosis or some inherited degenerative disorder. It can also result from chronic alcoholism or overuse of some medicines. In classic cerebellar tremor, a lesion on one side of the brain produces a tremor in that same side of the body that worsens with directed movement. Cerebellar damage can also produce a “wing-beating” type of tremor called rubral or Holmes’ tremor — a combination of rest, action, and postural tremors. The tremor is often most prominent when the affected person is active or is maintaining a particular posture. Cerebellar tremor may be accompanied by other manifestations of ataxia, including dysarthria (speech problems), nystagmus (rapid, involuntary rolling of the eyes), gait problems and postural tremor of the trunk and neck. Titubation is tremor of the head and is of cerebellar origin.
- Dystonic tremor occurs in individuals of all ages who are affected by dystonia, a movement disorder in which sustained involuntary muscle contractions cause twisting and repetitive motions and/or painful and abnormal postures or positions. Dystonic tremor may affect any muscle in the body and is seen most often when the patient is in a certain position or moves a certain way. The pattern of dystonic tremor may differ from essential tremor. Dystonic tremors occur irregularly and can often be relieved by complete rest. Touching the affected body part or muscle may reduce tremor severity (a geste antagoniste). The tremor may be the initial sign of dystonia localized to a particular part of the body. The dystonic tremor has usually a frequency of about 7 Hz.
- Essential tremor (sometimes called benign essential tremor) is the most common of the more than 20 types of tremor. Although the tremor may be mild and nonprogressive in some people, in others, the tremor is slowly progressive, starting on one side of the body but affecting both sides within 3 years. The hands are most often affected but the head, voice, tongue, legs, and trunk may also be involved. Head tremor may be seen as a vertical or horizontal motion. Essential tremor may be accompanied by mild gait disturbance. Tremor frequency may decrease as the person ages, but the severity may increase, affecting the person’s ability to perform certain tasks or activities of daily living. Heightened emotion, stress, fever, physical exhaustion, or low blood sugar may trigger tremors or increase their severity. Onset is most common after age 40, although symptoms can appear at any age. It may occur in more than one family member. Children of a parent who has essential tremor have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the condition. Essential tremor is not associated with any known pathology. Its frequency is between 4 to 8 Hz.
- Orthostatic tremor is characterized by fast (>12 Hz) rhythmic muscle contractions that occur in the legs and trunk immediately after standing. Cramps are felt in the thighs and legs and the patient may shake uncontrollably when asked to stand in one spot. No other clinical signs or symptoms are present and the shaking ceases when the patient sits or is lifted off the ground. The high frequency of the tremor often makes the tremor look like rippling of leg muscles while standing. Orthostatic tremor may also occur in patients who have essential tremor, and there might be an overlap between these categories of tremor.
- Parkinsonian tremor is caused by damage to structures within the brain that control movement. This resting tremor, which can occur as an isolated symptom or be seen in other disorders, is often a precursor to Parkinson’s disease (more than 25 percent of patients with Parkinson’s disease have an associated action tremor). The tremor, which is classically seen as a “pill-rolling” action of the hands that may also affect the chin, lips, legs, and trunk, can be markedly increased by stress or emotion. Onset is generally after age 60. Movement starts in one limb or on one side of the body and usually progresses to include the other side. The tremor’s frequency is between 4 and 6 Hz.
- Physiological tremor occurs in every normal individual and has no clinical significance. It is rarely visible and may be heightened by strong emotion (such as anxiety or fear), physical exhaustion, hypoglycemia, hyperthyroidism, heavy metal poisoning, stimulants, alcohol withdrawal or fever. It can be seen in all voluntary muscle groups and can be detected by extending the arms and placing a piece of paper on top of the hands. Enhanced physiological tremor is a strengthening of physiological tremor to more visible levels. It is generally not caused by a neurological disease but by reaction to certain drugs, alcohol withdrawal, or medical conditions including an overactive thyroid and hypoglycemia. It is usually reversible once the cause is corrected. This tremor classically has a frequency of about 10 Hz.
- Psychogenic tremor (also called hysterical tremor) can occur at rest or during postural or kinetic movement. The characteristics of this kind of tremor may vary but generally include sudden onset and remission, increased incidence with stress, change in tremor direction and/or body part affected, and greatly decreased or disappearing tremor activity when the patient is distracted. Many patients with psychogenic tremor have a conversion disorder (see Posttraumatic stress disorder) or another psychiatric disease.
- Rubral tremor is characterized by coarse slow tremor which is present at rest, at posture and with intention. This tremor is associated with conditions which affect the red nucleus in the midbrain, classically unusual strokes.
Tremor can result from other conditions as well
- Alcoholism, excessive alcohol consumption, or alcohol withdrawal can kill certain nerve cells, resulting in a tremor known as asterixis. Conversely, small amounts of alcohol may help to decrease familial and essential tremor, but the mechanism behind it is unknown. Alcohol potentiates GABAergic transmission and might act at the level of the inferior olive.
- Tremor in peripheral neuropathy may occur when the nerves that supply the body’s muscles are traumatized by injury, disease, abnormality in the central nervous system, or as the result of systemic illnesses. Peripheral neuropathy can affect the whole body or certain areas, such as the hands, and may be progressive. Resulting sensory loss may be seen as a tremor or ataxia (inability to coordinate voluntary muscle movement) of the affected limbs and problems with gait and balance. Clinical characteristics may be similar to those seen in patients with essential tremor.
- Tobacco withdrawal symptoms include tremor.
- Most of the symptoms can also occur randomly when panicked.
During a physical exam a doctor can determine whether the tremor occurs primarily during action or at rest. The doctor will also check for tremor symmetry, any sensory loss, weakness or muscle atrophy, or decreased reflexes. A detailed family history may indicate if the tremor is inherited. Blood or urine tests can detect thyroid malfunction, other metabolic causes, and abnormal levels of certain chemicals that can cause tremor. These tests may also help to identify contributing causes, such as drug interaction, chronic alcoholism, or another condition or disease. Diagnostic imaging using CT or MRI imaging may help determine if the tremor is the result of a structural defect or degeneration of the brain.
The doctor will perform a neurological examination to assess nerve function and motor and sensory skills. The tests are designed to determine any functional limitations, such as difficulty with handwriting or the ability to hold a utensil or cup. The patient may be asked to place a finger on the tip of her or his nose, draw a spiral, or perform other tasks or exercises.
The doctor may order an electromyogram to diagnose muscle or nerve problems. This test measures involuntary muscle activity and muscle response to nerve stimulation. The selection of the sensors used is important. In addition to studies of muscle activity, tremor can be assessed with accuracy using accelerometers .