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What’s the Difference Between Parkinson’s Disease and Essential Tremor?

A wrinkled pair of hands belonging to an elderly person.

When observing someone with trembling hands or involuntary movements in the arms, legs, or head, many may immediately associate these symptoms with Parkinson’s disease (PD). However, it’s important to recognize that these manifestations could also indicate a more prevalent albeit less severe condition known as essential tremor.

Since both are distinct neurological disorders, knowing the difference between Parkinson’s disease (PD) and essential tremor (ET) is important for an accurate diagnosis and effective management.

What Is Essential Tremor?

Essential tremor is the most prevalent type of tremor, characterized by involuntary shaking, primarily affecting the hands and arms. Although not life-threatening, severe cases can lead to disability.

Initially, the tremor is typically low-amplitude/frequency (lower force) and may affect the head and voice as well. Typically starting with mild shaking, the tremors may increase in severity but occur with a reduced frequency over time.

Researchers are uncertain about the condition’s cause, but there is evidence of genetic predisposition, with a higher likelihood among people whose parents have suffered from it. Essential tremor can manifest at any age but it’s most common in adults over 40, affecting both genders equally.


What Is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder resulting from insufficient dopamine production in the brain. It predominantly affects older adults over 60, with a higher incidence in men.

Tremors in Parkinson’s typically begin unilaterally, often in the hands, before spreading to the other side of the body. These tremors are characterized by a amplitude but lower frequency compared to essential tremors.

Parkinson’s presents a range of symptoms beyond tremors, including muscle stiffness, bradykinesia (slowed movements), and postural instability. While tremors are a hallmark symptom, other motor and non-motor symptoms distinguish Parkinson’s disease.


More Differences Between Parkinson’s and Essential Tremor

The Numbers

According to estimates, essential tremors impact approximately 7 million people in the United States alone, making it considerably more common than Parkinson’s disease, with a prevalence at least eight times higher.

Meanwhile, Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological condition that affects about 1% of individuals over 60 years old. It is characterized by movement difficulties, as opposed to essential tremors, where bilateral tremors in the hands and arms are the hallmark feature.


PD results from the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain’s substantia nigra region. The exact cause remains unknown, but genetic and environmental factors likely play a role.

ET’s precise cause is also unclear, but it is believed to involve abnormalities in the cerebellum, a brain region responsible for coordinating movement. Genetic factors may contribute to its development.

The Tremors

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, the primary distinction between Parkinsonian tremors (PT) and other types of tremors lies in their presentation. PT typically manifest as a “resting tremor,” characterized by trembling or shaking movements occurring while the individual is at rest or maintaining stillness.

In contrast, other types of tremors, such as essential tremor or tremors associated with dystonia or cerebellar disorders, typically present as “action tremors.” These tremors manifest when the individual actively engages or uses the affected body part, such as during movement or when maintaining a particular posture.

Progression and Life Span

PD is a progressive condition, with symptoms worsening over time as neuronal degeneration advances. Patients may experience fluctuations in symptoms and may eventually develop significant motor and non-motor complications.

Meanwhile, ET tends to be a slowly progressive condition, although the rate of progression varies among individuals. While tremors may worsen over time, many patients experience relatively stable symptoms with appropriate management.

Moreover, essential tremor symptoms may progress but generally don’t shorten an individual’s life span, whereas Parkinson’s tends to worsen over time and can impact life expectancy due to decreased levodopa production.

A patient lies in an MRI machine undergoing Insightec treatment for his essential tremor.

Associated Health Problems

In addition to tremors, PD is characterized by bradykinesia (again, slowed movements), rigidity, and postural instability. Patients may also experience stooped posture, shuffling gait, freezing of gait, and non-motor symptoms like depression and cognitive changes.

While ET is primarily characterized by tremors, some patients may also experience mild balance difficulties or coordination problems. Unlike PD, ET typically does not cause significant motor impairments or non-motor symptoms.

Management Strategies

Both conditions can be managed with medications, physical therapy, and other techniques, like deep brain stimulation. However, MR-guided focused ultrasound from Insightec has been used successfully in the treatment of both essential tremor and PD. The treatment is completely noninvasive and the effects are instantaneous and can last up to six years. Plus, it can be administered to both sides of the brain and it’s covered under Medicare.

Consulting a healthcare professional is crucial for personalized guidance and support. If PD, ET, or any other chronic healthcare condition is disrupting your life, Houston Physicians’ Hospital can help. Visit their webpage dedicated to MR-Focused Ultrasound for Essential Tremor Treatment to learn more and to find a doctor who can provide the treatment.

Professionals at our specialty hospital understand the challenges you may face and are dedicated to providing comprehensive care tailored to your individual needs. Whether you require medication management, physical therapy Services in Houston, or other advanced treatment options, we’re here to support your journey toward regaining control and improving your quality of life.