Part 1: Top 5 Things to Never Say to Someone Who Has a Tremor

Do you remember the first time it happened? The first time someone said something about your tremor that caused your breath to catch in your chest and your eyes to widen? Was it a friend, co-worker or stranger? Was it from a place of ignorance, malice or concern? No matter the circumstance, most (if not all) people living with essential tremor (ET) can identify with being hurt by something someone has said. Many patients have stories that can attest to some of these unhelpful comments and experiences. 

That is why we drafted this list of the top 5 things to never say to someone who has a tremor. We recognize that this list is imperfect and that everyone’s experience with ET is different, so we encourage you to add to this list and share it with your support circle. While we might not be able to prevent hurtful words, we can spread awareness. On that note, let’s dive in: 

1. “Are you sick?” 

Essential tremor, also referred to as familial, idiopathic, or benign tremor, is a common neurological condition that causes uncontrollable shaking of the hands, head and voice, but it can also cause legs and trunk to shake. While ET can often be confused with Parkinson’s disease, ET is eight times more common and affects an estimated 10 million Americans and many more worldwide. 1 

Unlike Parkinson’s, which is a degenerative disease that has a range of motor symptoms, ET is progressive, but not degenerative. It instead is the result of a malfunction of certain neurons in the brain.  

Tremors can also be confused with a symptom of a fever caused by a viral or bacterial infection. While ET is a medical condition that should be taken seriously, it’s not correct or appropriate to assume that it is a “sickness”. 

2. “Don’t be nervous.” 

While anxiety and discomfort can enhance tremors, they are not the cause. People living with tremor do not want others to assume that they are nervous because their hands shake. There is still much we don’t know about the causes of ET; in the medical world, the word “essential” means there’s no known underlying cause for the condition, which is the case for ET.  

3. “You are too young to have tremors.” 

While ET can occur at any time, symptoms often become more pronounced and are more common in older adults. But ET can also affect individuals of any age – including younger adults and children. In rare cases, it has been reported during infancy, especially for those who have a family history of ET.  

4. “What is taking you so long?” 

Many tasks take longer when you have ET. “Simple” tasks like signing a document, preparing a meal or getting ready for the day can require extra time when one’s hands or other body parts are not cooperating. 

5.The same thing happens to me when I drink too much coffee.” 

Some well-meaning people try to build a connection by saying comments like this, but instead diminish the involuntary nature of ET. A person with ET can reduce or eliminate caffeine, however the shaking may continue. Similar to the symptoms of anxiety mentioned above, caffeine and sugar can exacerbate tremors, but they are not the cause. 

While it is important to acknowledge the harm done by these comments and questions, let’s not stop there. Stay tuned for Part 2: Top 5 Things to Say to Someone Who Has a Tremor coming soon. 

References: 

  1. US News and World Report. The Truth About Essential Tremor: It’s Not Just a Case of Nerves. https://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2015/11/11/the-truth-about-essential-tremor-its-not-just-a-case-of-nerves. Accessed August 26, 2021