The question about whether or not to exercise if you have essential tremor comes up often. This article was written several years ago by Dr. Jankovic, who serves on our medical advisory board. But the information is worth reprinting.
By Joseph Jankovic, M.D.
Director, Parkinson’s Disease Center and Movement Disorders Clinic, Department of Neurology, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas
Any discussion of the management of a chronic disease would not be complete without emphasizing the importance of physical activity. Exercise has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce obesity and prevent cardiovascular disease, but there is little data on the role of exercise and essential tremor (ET).
In fact, many patients with ET observe that their tremor is markedly exacerbated after strenuous physical activity or exercise and understandably wonder if they should avoid such activity.
As long as there is no cardiac, orthopedic or other contraindication, patients with ET should remain physically active. Be reassured that worsening of tremor after exercise is expected due to the outpouring of adrenaline (or epinephrine and norepinephrine) during exercise. Adrenaline, released during any physical or psychological stress, stimulates beta adrenergic receptors in muscle spindles, leading to increased muscle activity, manifested as worsening of tremor. This effect, however, is temporary and the tremor usually returns to its previous state after a few minutes of rest.
Alcohol and propranolol, a beta adrenergic blocker, can reduce stress-induced exacerbation of ET, hence the two drugs are often used to “calm” the nervous system. Even professional actors often use propranolol to minimize the tremor effects of anxiety associated with stage fright.
Many studies have shown that exercise benefits not only the body but also the brain. It has been shown to improve learning, memory, and depression; it also appears to protect the brain from neurodegeneration. [Cotman et al, 2007].
Although Parkinson’s disease is different from ET (despite the occasional overlap of the two disorders), studies on exercise in Parkinson’s disease may be relevant to patients with ET.
In a prospective study of 48,574 of men and 77,254 women, higher levels of physical activity was associated with lower risk of Parkinson disease [Chen et al, 2005]. Based on systematic literature review, the Practice Recommendations Development Group from The Netherlands concluded that there is sufficient evidence to recommend physical therapy and exercise to improve balance, and training of joint mobility and muscle power and to improve physical capacity of patients with Parkinson disease [Keus et al, 2007].
There are many other studies that provide evidence exercise may be helpful in improving motor function [Kwakkel et al, 2007], although firm evidence that exercise lowers the risk of Parkinson disease is still lacking [Logroscino et al, 2006].
Exercise may prolong life not only by preventing or reducing the risk of life-threatening disorders, but also by slowing the aging process. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of exercise as an important anti-aging factor is the recent finding that leukocyte telomere length, a biological indicator of human aging, correlates with exercise.
In a study of 2,401 twin volunteers, comprising 2152 women and 249 men, who were asked to complete detailed questionnaires about their level of physical activity, smoking status, and socioeconomic status, the leukocyte telomere length was 200 nucleotides longer in the most active subjects as compared to the least active subjects during their leisure time (P<.001), even when adjusted for age, sex, body mass index, smoking, socioeconomic status, and physical activity at work.
It has been postulated for a long time that patients with ET live longer than those without it. The Russian neurologist, Minor, suggested in 1935 “that a factor for longevity was also contained in the tremor gamete.”
In a study published in 1995 it was found that parents of ET patients who experienced tremor lived on the average 9.2 years longer than those parents who did not have tremor. Since the parents with tremor who lived longer probably had ET, we concluded that ET confers some anti-aging influence and significantly increases longevity.
- While there is no obvious explanation for this striking observation, it is possible that: patients with ET have an underlying personality trait that encourages dietary, occupational, and physical habits that promote longevity.
- Perhaps, the small amounts of alcohol to calm the tremor might prolong life.
- Finally, the tremor itself might be viewed as a form of exercise that would have beneficial effects on general health and on longevity.
Further studies are needed on the potential anti-aging effects of ET, and whether exercise confers additional benefits by favorably modifying the course of the disease.
Cherkas LF, Hunkin JL, Kato BS, Richards JB, Gardner JP, Surdulescu GL, Kimura M, Lu X, Spector TD, Aviv A. The association between physical activity in leisure time and leukocyte telomere length. Arch Intern Med 2008;168:154-8.
Cotman CW, Berchtold NC, Christie LA. Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends Neurosci 2007;30:464-72. Trends Neurosci 2007;30:489.
Chen H, Zhang SM, Schwarzschild MA, Hernan MA, Ascherio A. Physical activity and the risk of Parkinson disease. Neurology 2005;64:664-9.
Jankovic J, Beach J, Schwartz K, Contant C. Tremor and longevity in relatives of patients with Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, and control subjects. Neurology 1995;45:645-8.
Keus SH, Bloem BR, Hendriks EJ, Bredero-Cohen AB, Munneke M; Practice Recommendations Development Group. Evidence-based analysis of physical therapy in Parkinson’s disease with recommendations for practice and research. Mov Disord 2007;22:451-60.
Kwakkel G, de Goede CJT, van Wegen EEH. Impact of physical therapy for Parkinson’s disease: A critical review of the literature. Parkinsonism and Related Disorders 2007;13:S478-S487.
Logroscino G. The role of early life environmental risk factors in Parkinson disease: what is the evidence? Environ Health Perspect. 2005;113:1234-1238.