ByAlex Rajput, MD, University of Saskatchewan;
Eric Noyes, MD, University of Saskatchewan
Reviewed/Revised Feb 2024
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(See also Overview of Movement and Cerebellar Disorders.)

Tremor may be

  • Normal (physiologic)

  • Pathologic

Physiologic tremor, usually barely perceptible, becomes noticeable in many people during physical or mental stress. When visible, this tremor is referred to as enhanced physiologic tremor.

Tremors vary in

  • Pattern of occurrence (eg, intermittent, constant)

  • Severity

  • Acuity (eg, gradual, abrupt)

The severity of tremor may not be related to the seriousness of the underlying disorder. For example, essential tremor is generally thought of as benign and should not shorten life, but symptoms can be disabling.

Pathophysiology of Tremor

Various lesions in the brainstem, extrapyramidal system, or cerebellum can cause tremors. Neural dysfunction or lesions that cause tremor may result from injury, ischemia, metabolic abnormalities, or a neurodegenerative disorder. Sometimes tremor is a familial condition (eg, essential tremor).


Tremor is classified primarily based on when it occurs:

  • Resting tremors are visible at rest and occur when a body part is completely supported. Resting tremors are minimal or absent during activity. Classical parkinsonian tremor (the most common resting tremor) is 3 to 6 cycles/seconds (hertz [Hz]).

  • Action tremors are maximal when a body part is moved voluntarily. Action tremors may or may not change in severity as a target is reached; they can occur at different frequencies. Action tremors can be subdivided into postural and kinetic tremor.

  • Postural tremors occur when a limb is maintained in a fixed position against gravity (eg, when holding the arms outstretched). Postural tremor may vary with specific positions.

  • Kinetic tremors occur during voluntary movement and can be subdivided into simple kinetic tremor and intention tremor. Simple kinetic tremors have about the same frequency and amplitude throughout a movement. Intention tremors have a crescendo and increase as the affected body part reaches its target.

Complex tremors can have components of more than one type of tremor.

Tremor can also be classified based on whether it is

  • Physiologic (within the range of normal)

  • A primary disorder (essential tremor, Parkinson disease)

  • Secondary to a disorder (eg, stroke)

Tremor is usually described based on frequency of oscillations (rapid or slow) and amplitude of movement (fine [low amplitude] or coarse [high amplitude]).

Etiology of Tremor

Physiologic tremor

Physiologic tremor occurs in otherwise healthy people. It is an action or postural tremor that tends to affect both hands about equally; amplitude is usually fine. It is often noticeable only when certain stressors are present. These stressors include

  • Anxiety

  • Fatigue

  • Exercise

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Withdrawal of alcohol or certain other central nervous system (CNS) depressant medications (eg, benzodiazepines, opioids)

  • Certain disorders (eg, hyperthyroidism), when symptomatic

Pathologic (nonphysiologic) tremor

There are many causes (see table Some Causes of Tremor), but the most common are


Medications (see table Some Medication Causes of Tremor by Type) can cause or aggravate different types of tremor. Low doses of some sedatives (eg, alcohol) may suppress some tremors (eg, essential and physiologic tremor); higher doses may cause or exacerbate tremor.


Evaluation of Tremor

Because the diagnosis of tremor is largely clinical, a meticulous history and physical examination are essential.


History of present illness should cover

  • Acuity of onset (eg, gradual, abrupt)

  • Age at onset

  • Body parts affected

  • Provoking factors (eg, movement, rest, standing)

If onset is abrupt, patients should be asked about potential triggering events (eg, recent trauma or illness, use of a new medication).

Review of systems should seek symptoms of causative disorders, including

Past medical history should cover conditions associated with tremor (see table Some Causes of Tremor). Family history should include questions about tremor in first-degree relatives. The medication profile should be reviewed for causative agents (see table Some Medication Causes of Tremor), and patients should be asked specifically about caffeine intake and alcohol and illicit drug use (particularly recent discontinuation).

Physical examination

In addition to a complete neurologic examination, focused examination should note distribution and frequency of the tremor while

  • The affected body parts are at rest and fully supported (eg, in the patient’s lap).

  • The patient assumes certain postures (eg, holding the arms outstretched).

  • The patient is walking or doing tasks with the affected body part.

The examiner should note whether the tremor changes during mental distraction tasks (eg, serial subtraction of 7 from 100). The quality of the voice should be observed while the patient sustains a long note.

Red flags

The following findings are of particular concern:

  • Abrupt onset

  • Onset in people < 50 and with no family history of benign tremor

  • Other neurologic deficits (eg, change in mental status, motor weakness, cranial nerve palsy, ataxic gait, dysarthria)

  • Tachycardia and agitation

Interpretation of findings

Clinical findings help suggest a cause (see table Some Causes of Tremor).

Tremor type and onset are useful clues:

  • Resting tremors usually indicate Parkinson disease, particularly when they are unilateral or when tremor is isolated to the chin or leg.

  • Intention tremors suggest a cerebellar disorder but may result from multiple sclerosis or Wilson disease.

  • Postural tremors suggest physiologic or essential tremor if onset is gradual; it suggests a toxic or metabolic disorder if onset is sudden.

Severe essential tremor is often confused with Parkinson disease but can usually be distinguished by specific characteristics (see table Some Characteristics Differentiating Parkinson Disease From Essential Tremor). Occasionally, the two syndromes overlap (mixed essential tremor–Parkinson disease).


The following findings may help suggest causes of tremor:

  • Functional tremor is characterized by rapid onset, with variable frequency and distribution, entrainment, and distractibility. This tremor was formerly referred to as psychogenic tremor, although mental illness is not essential for diagnosis.

  • Stepwise progression suggests an ischemic vascular disorder or multiple sclerosis

  • Development of tremor after use of a new medication suggests that the medication is the cause.

  • Onset of tremor with agitation, tachycardia, and hypertension within 24 to 72 hours of hospitalization may suggest withdrawal from alcohol or another sedative or use of an illicit substance.

Gait is observed. Gait abnormalities may suggest multiple sclerosis, stroke, Parkinson disease, or a cerebellar disorder. Gait is characteristically narrow-based and shuffling in Parkinson disease and wide-based and ataxic in cerebellar disorders. The gait may have histrionic or inconsistent qualities in patients with psychogenic tremor. In patients with essential tremor, gait is often normal, but tandem gait (placing heel to toe) may be abnormal.

Functional tremor can be identified because functional tremors decrease or disappear when the patient is mentally distracted and when tremor frequency synchronizes (entrains) to a volitional tapping rhythm by an unaffected body part. Maintaining different volitional movement frequencies simultaneously in two different body parts is difficult.


In most patients, history and physical examination are sufficient to identify the likely etiology of tremor. However, MRI or CT of the brain should be done if

  • Tremor onset is acute.

  • Progression is rapid.

  • Focal neurologic signs suggest a structural lesion (eg, stroke, brain tumor, a demyelinating disorder).

When the cause of tremor is unclear (based on history and physical examination findings), the following are done:

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine (T4) are measured to check for hyperthyroidism.

  • Calcium and parathyroid hormone are measured to check for hyperparathyroidism or hypoparathyroidism.

  • Glucose testing is done to rule out hypoglycemia.

In patients with toxic encephalopathy, the underlying condition is usually readily apparent, but measurement of blood urea nitrogen and ammonia levels can help confirm the etiology. Measurement of free metanephrines in plasma is indicated in patients with unexplained refractory hypertension. Serum ceruloplasmin and urinary copper levels should be measured to check for Wilson disease if patients are < 40 and have tremor with an unclear cause, especially if tremor has a wing-beating quality (with or without parkinsonism and dystonic features) and no family history of benign tremor. (Wing-beating is a low-frequency, high-amplitude, posture-induced arm tremor, elicited by sustained abduction of the arms, with flexed elbows and palms.)

Electromyography (EMG) can help differentiate tremor from other movement disorders (eg, myoclonus or dystonia) but is rarely required.

Treatment of Tremor

Physiologic tremors

No treatment is necessary unless symptoms are bothersome. Avoiding triggers (such as caffeine, fatigue, sleep deprivation, certain medications, and, when possible, stress and anxiety) can help prevent or reduce symptoms.

Physiologic tremor is enhanced by alcohol withdrawal, by hyperthyroidism, and by use of medications and by conditions that can cause tremor. The tremor responds to treatment of the underlying condition.

Essential tremors

For some patients, a small amount of alcohol is effective; however, alcohol is not routinely recommended for treatment because abuse is a risk.

Cerebellar tremors

No effective medication is available; physical therapy (eg, weighting the affected limbs, teaching patients to brace the proximal limb during activity) sometimes helps.

Parkinsonian tremors

is usually the treatment of choice for most parkinsonian tremors.

Anticholinergic medication may be considered in certain cases, but their adverse effects (decreased mental concentration, dry mouth, dry eyes, urinary retention and the possibility that they enhance tau pathology) may outweigh their benefits, particularly in older adults.

Other parkinsonian medications, including , may be effective.

Medication-refractory tremor

For severe, medication-refractory essential tremor, surgical management with unilateral stereotactic thalamotomy or chronic unilateral or bilateral thalamic deep brain stimulation may be considered. High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) can be used to ablate the ventral intermediate nucleus of the thalamus and thus control severe contralateral essential tremor.

Dystonic tremor may respond better to functional neurosurgery targeting the internal portion of the globus pallidus.

In Parkinson disease, tremor substantially lessens after thalamic, internal globus pallidus, or subthalamic nucleus deep brain stimulation.

Although these techniques are widely available, they should be used only after reasonable pharmacotherapy has failed and only in patients who do not have substantial cognitive or psychiatric impairment.

Functional (psychogenic) tremor

For patients with functional tremor, tremor entrainment may help. This treatment refers to the change or elimination of tremor as the patient performs a voluntary rhythmical movement by the unaffected limb (1). Cognitive-behavioral therapy and multidisciplinary assessment may also help.

Treatment reference

  1. 1.Espay AJ, Edwards MJ, Oggioni GD, et al: Tremor retrainment as therapeutic strategy in psychogenic (functional) tremor. Parkinsonism Relat Disord 20 (6):647–650, 2014. Epub 2014 Mar 20. doi: 10.1016/j.parkreldis.2014.02.029

Geriatrics Essentials: Tremor

Many older adults attribute development of tremor to normal aging and may not seek medical attention. Although essential tremor is more prevalent among older adults, a thorough history and physical examination are required to rule out other causes and to determine whether the symptoms are severe enough to justify pharmacotherapy or surgical treatment.

Tremor can significantly affect functional ability in older adults, particularly if they have other physical or cognitive impairments. Physical and occupational therapy can provide simple coping strategies, and assistive devices may help maintain quality of life.

Key Points

  • Tremor can be classified as resting or action (including postural and kinetic) tremors.

  • The most common causes of tremor include physiologic tremor, essential tremor, and Parkinson disease.

  • History and physical examination can typically identify the etiology of tremor.

  • Consider Parkinson disease if patients have a resting tremor, consider essential or physiologic tremor if they have a postural or an action tremor, and consider cerebellar tremor if they have an intention tremor.

  • If tremor begins abruptly or occurs in patients who are < 50 and do not have a family history of benign tremor, evaluate them promptly and thoroughly with brain imaging and laboratory tests based on clinical presentation.

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