Parkinson’s disease (PD) and Essential Tremor (ET) both are classified under Movement Disorder. The symptoms are commonly confused with each other and patients were misdiagnosed mainly because ET is not as well known. Over the last three decades organizations and philanthropist like Michael J. Fox Foundation, Muhammad Ali, etc spread public awareness about PD whereas, ET remain in a darkness. Because of this, ET is not as well-known to the general public even though it is as much as 20 times more prevalent than Parkinson’s disease.
The two disorders differ in etiology and symptoms. As of now we understand the cause of PD quite well. As, it manifests when there is a loss of about 80% of the dopaminergic neurons in substantia nigra. However, the cause behind the death of these dopaminergic neurons is still unknown. The etiology of ET is still unknown. No pathologic findings are known to be consistently associated with essential tremor. However it been hypothesized that just like PD, it involve the deep nuclei and white matter of the brain, including the thalamus and striatum and cerebellar-brainstem-thalamic-cortical circuits probably are involved. It has been also estimated that approximately one-half of the ET cases is due to a genetic mutation and the pattern of inheritance is most consistent with autosomal dominant transmission.
The symptoms of PD include tremor, rigidity, akinesia, and postural instability. Bradykinesia (slowed movements) and bradyphrenia (slowed cognition) are also common symptoms. Tremors in PD (if present) mostly manifest as a resting tremor. In other words, there is less of an action tremor than a resting tremor. Emotional changes are also common; depression and facial masking (little facial expression of emotion) are particularly prevalent. ET generally presents as a rhythmic tremor which begins in one upper extremity and soon affects the other and is present only when the affected muscle is exerting effort (in other words, it is not present at rest). In about 30% of cases, tremor involves the cranial musculature; the head is involved most frequently, followed by voice, jaw, and face. Any sort of physical or mental stress will tend to make the tremor worse, often creating the false impression that the tremor is of psychosomatic origin.
Both Parkinson’s diseases and Essential Tremor are generally progressive in most cases (sometimes rapidly, sometimes very slowly), and can be disabling in severe cases. Additionally, patients with essential tremor are more likely to develop or have PD.
There is no known cure for both PD and ET. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms. Treatment of PD usually starts with levodopa and anticholinergic therapy. Treatment of ET usually involves antiepileptic primidone and beta-adrenergic blocker propranolol. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) of the subthalamic nucleus, globus pallidus, or thalamus are becoming more common treatments of both essential tremor and PD. DBS was approved for treatment of ET in 1997 and for PD in 2002.
While we still have a lot to learn about these two diseases, we have come a long way in understanding and treating both the diseases. However there is an immediate need to raise public awareness about Essential Tremor and its outcomes.
Louis ED, Ottman R, & Hauser WA (1998). How common is the most common adult movement disorder? estimates of the prevalence of essential tremor throughout the world. Movement disorders : official journal of the Movement Disorder Society, 13 (1), 5-10 PMID: 9452318
Flora ED, Perera CL, Cameron AL, & Maddern GJ (2010). Deep brain stimulation for essential tremor: a systematic review. Movement disorders : official journal of the Movement Disorder Society, 25 (11), 1550-9 PMID: 20623768