Hand tremor

Alternative names
Tremor - arms or hands

Definition

A tremor is an involuntary movement or shaking of any body part (even your head or voice may be involved). It is often most noticeable in your hands. There are three main types of tremors:

     
  • Resting or static tremors - occur when your hand or affected body part is at rest.  
  • Intention tremors - occur when you are moving your hand or affected body part and disappear at rest.  
  • Postural tremors - occur when you are holding your hand or affected body part in a particular position for a period of time.

Considerations

Tremors can happen at any age but tend to be more common in older people.

You can develop a tremor from fatigue, stress, anxiety, or even rage. However, an ongoing tremor that is not associated with a change in your emotional state may be a sign of an underlying medical condition and should be evaluated. You may learn, as many do, that your tremors are perfectly normal, but eliminating medical reasons for the shaking is important.

It is especially important to have tremors evaluated if body parts other than the hands are involved, like your tongue or head, or if you have other types of involuntary movements other than shaking.

Essential tremor is common in older people. Essential tremor is rarely present when the hands are not being used. It becomes most apparent when the affected person is trying to do something, like reaching for an object or writing. It is not caused by an underlying disease.

Another common type of tremor is called familial tremor which, as the name implies, tend to run in families.

Both essential and familial tremors may be suppressed by drinking alcohol. This is a useful fact for making the diagnosis, but alcohol is not a desirable treatment.

Common Causes

Tremors may be caused by:

     
  • Too much coffee or other caffeinated drink  
  • Excessive alcohol consumption, alcoholism, or alcohol withdrawal  
  • Stress, anxiety, or fatigue - these can cause a postural tremor  
  • Normal aging  
  • A variety of drugs and prescription medicines  
  • Low blood sugar  
  • Parkinson’s disease - this is the classic cause of a resting tremor and is often accompanied by slowness of movement, muscle rigidity, and an abnormal gait  
  • Multiple sclerosis - can cause an intention tremor  
  • Over active thyroid - can cause a postural tremor

Home Care

For tremors caused by stress, try relaxation techniques like meditation, deep relaxation, or breathing exercises. For tremors of any cause, avoid caffeine and get enough sleep.

For tremors caused by a medication, consult with your doctor about stopping the drug, reducing the dosage, or switching medications. DO NOT change or stop medications on your own.

For certain types of tremors, like essential tremor and familial tremor, medications such as beta-blockers, gabapentin, primidone, and others may be an option. If medication doesn’t work, your doctor may even consider surgery. Also, botulinum toxin injections have been used for essential hand tremors.

For tremors caused by alcohol abuse, seek treatment and support to help you avoid alcohol.

Severe tremors may interfere with your ability to perform daily activities. Assistance with these activities may be necessary. Precautions should be taken to avoid injury during activities such as walking or eating.

Call your health care provider if

Call your doctor if:

     
  • Your tremor is worse at rest and gets better with movement, like when you reach for something.  
  • Your tremors are prolonged, severe, or interfere with your life.  
  • Your tremors occur with other symptoms, like headache, weakness, abnormal tongue motion, or other types of involuntary movements.

What to expect at your health care provider’s office

Your doctor will perform a physical examination, including a detailed neurologic examination. The following medical history questions may help your doctor evaluate the cause of your tremors:

     
  • Is your tremor regular or irregular?  
  • Does it occur with activity, at rest, or when you have been holding your hand (or other body part) in a particular position for a long time?  
  • Are the movements small (fine) or large (coarse)?  
  • Are both hands affected? To the same degree on both sides?  
  • Are other body parts affected, including your voice or head?  
  • Does the tremor impair your ability to use your hands or other body parts?  
  • Does emotional stress or excitement make it worse?  
  • Does drinking an alcoholic beverage make the tremor better or worse?  
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

The following diagnostic tests may be performed:

     
  • Blood tests such as CBC, blood differential, thyroid function tests, and glucose test  
  • Urine tests  
  • Head CT scan  
  • MRI of the head  
  • EMG or nerve conduction studies

Once a cause of the tremor has been determined, the appropriate treatment for the disease will be prescribed.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 6, 2012
by Simon D. Mitin, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.