tremors

Stop Shaking: Eliminating Essential Tremors Without Surgery

There is an FDA approved, one-time treatment that can stop the shaking within seconds

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Imagine your hands shaking so badly that you can’t hold a spoon steady to eat and you’re unable to read your own handwriting. This is the reality for 10 million people in the United States who suffer from essential tremors. It’s a debilitating disease that can affect every aspect of a person’s life. Now, there is an FDA approved, one-time treatment that can stop the shaking within seconds.

Janice Pedersen definitely doesn’t have a memory problem. She can name all 11 of her kids and 52 of her grandkids!

“We've got about every name you can think of in our family,” said Pedersen. 

But Janice’s life changed drastically when her kids were young, her hands started shaking in her forties.

“It got so bad that I couldn't eat with utensils. The food would just fly off the fork,” Pedersen said.

A team at the University of Utah is using focused ultrasound, a non-invasive approach to help patients like Janice. When fellow patient Mark Armstrong got the procedure, more than a thousand ultrasound beams are focused on the part of his brain that’s causing the tremor.

“The area we're targeting is a small part of the brain, the size of a pea. We do these procedures with the patient awake so we can get real-time feedback with how we're doing,” explained Dr. John Rolston, a neurosurgeon at the University of Utah Health.

It was life-changing for Mark, as for Janice, her handwriting before was unreadable, but her handwriting improved during the procedure and is now beautiful once again. But this isn’t a cure.

“We just like to think that we're able to set the clock back several decades and kind of reset the clock for these patients,” added Dr. Matt Alexander, a neurointerventional radiologist at the University of Utah Health.

The FDA has approved treating the part of the brain that impacts each hand, one at a time. The hand that was treated for Janice is steady, the other hand is not. Janice is hoping to get her left hand treated soon, but for now, she is back to doing all the things she couldn’t do before.

“They told me, they said, 'you might see 50%' but to me, it feels like a 100%,” Pedersen said.

Before focused ultrasounds, patients were dependent on medications and RF ablation that could damage other areas of the brain since it requires making an incision and drilling a hole into the skull. As for focused ultrasound, there’s very little risk, but patients may feel some tingling or experience instability for weeks afterwards. Also, not everyone with essential tremor is eligible for focused ultrasound. You may not be a good candidate if you have a pacemaker, kidney disease or can’t have an MRI. 

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Executive Producer; Marsha Lewis, Field Producer; Rusty Reed, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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