Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to essential tremor

tremorDrinking three or four alcoholic drinks a day can double the risk of developing essential tremor – or ‘the shakes’ – in old age, suggest new findings from a Spanish research group.  In a report published earlier this year, the same researchers found that individuals with essential tremor were four times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than people without the shakes.

Essential tremor is a progressive neurological disorder characterised by uncontrollable shaking of the hands or, in some cases, the head, jaw, face, feet or tongue.  An estimated 650,000 people in the UK and five million in the US over the age of 60 are affected by this disorder.

Scientists don’t really know what causes essential tremor.  They do know, however, that people with this disorder have damage in the cerebellum part of their brain, including loss of neurons called Purkinje cells.  Given that alcohol is known to be toxic to the cerebellum, Louis and colleagues investigated whether alcohol consumption had an effect on the development of essential tremor.

This study assessed lifetime alcohol consumption and neurological symptoms in more than 3,000 people aged 65 years or older.  At initial assessment, more than half (1,838 people; 56%) of the participants were found to have had at least one alcoholic drink per day over their lifetime.  During the subsequent 3 years, 76 people developed essential tremor.

Individuals who drank 3-4 alcoholic drinks each day were twice as likely to develop essential tremor than those who drank less.  In fact, just one or two drinks a day increased the risk by 30%.

The authors suggest that ethanol, a known cerebellar toxin, lowers the threshold for developing ET – a disorder involving the cerebellum.  It is also possible that individuals who develop essential tremor use alcohol to self medicate, thus making their shaking worse.


Louis E et al. (2009) Population-based study of baseline ethanol consumption and risk of incident essential tremor. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 80 (5): 494-497 DOI: 10.1136/jnnp.2008.162701

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  1. Is it so surprising that 56% of a group of test subjects with ET in Spain had a drink a day – since drinking wine with meals is supposedly such an important part of Spanish cuisine and culture? Without a follow-up study of the prevalence of ET among lifelong tea-totalers, and a study of alcohol consumption rates in Spain among non-ET sufferers, this study is scientifically flawed.
    Worse, it is actually quite harmful, since it promotes the idea that all ET sufferers (even those of us with onset in childhood) are closet alcoholics, undeserving of the research dollars that would cure or improve our condition.

  2. I am 72 years of age and have had intermittent ET since my early twenties. I am currently taking propanolol, which improves matters to some extent on some days. Alcohol can also help.
    My ET is confined to my right hand. I supplement my small state pension by painting and, some days, I have to use my left hand to paint (I am right-handed).
    I recently had a brain scan which apparently revealed no abnormalities.
    I learned early on to make a joke of my shakes – people then tend to laugh with me rather than at me…

  3. I am 43 years old and have just been diagnosed with Essential Tremor. I don’t drink alcohol. AT ALL! I am loathe to understand how you can justify your conclusions considering the many replies you have had to your study from ET sufferers stating they do not drink alcohol.

  4. This study is complete BULL!! I am a 19 year old high school student who had Benign Essential Tremor and I have had it as long as I can remember, I got it from my dad who got it from his family, my little brother has it as well. NONE of us even TOUCH anything alcoholic. just because something works for SOME people does not mean you have to steriotype…it’s not cool…

  5. This study is a waste of time and money! I rarely drink (1 glass wine/month), am 31 years old and have Essential Tremor in my hands, tongue and voice box. I got it from my mom’s side of the family…NOT alcohol! This is so demeaning to those of us already suffering as it is! How about this Spanish group using their time and money on a cure instead!

  6. I would like to know how this study was done. I am 46 years old. I was diagnosed with Essential Tremor (ET) at age 45. I have tremors in both hands and recently in both feet. I do not drink alcohol. I am an active Mormon. My sister also has ET and she does not drink. My father had tremors in his hands and he did not drink. My Great Grandfather was described as have a palsy in his head and in his hands. He also was a Mormon and did not drink. I think this shows that drinking is not always the cause!

  7. While I do agree that drinking more than the recommended alcohol units can cause ‘the shakes’ in old age, I disagree with the findings that alcohol is the cause of Essential Tremor. Almost all of the visitors to my website have had signs of Essential Tremor from a very young age and so the theory of excessive alcohol consumption leading to Essential Tremor can not, in my opinion, be linked. I have met a few alcoholics who have ‘the shakes’ and the ‘rhythmic’ shaking associated with Essential Tremor is absent with the alcohol dependent individuals displaying more of a ‘shivering’ type shake .
    I would also disagree that ‘many’ individuals self medicate by using alcohol to control the tremors and instead would suggest that ‘some’ individuals use alcohol as a means to stop the tremor.
    To be honest, I feel that this study has seriously hampered any little hope Essential Tremor sufferers had of being accepted in society. We have all been ridiculed at some point in our lives and many of us have been accused of being alcoholics.
    Over the time my website has been up and running I have received many personal emails, which were both sad and upsetting, from individuals who have become reclusive because of the humiliation suffered at the hands of misinformed members of society who assume anyone with a tremor is either an alcoholic or extremely nervous.
    This study also doesn’t take into account the extensive study on the Iowa Kindred. The Iowa Kindred are referred to as an ‘extended family’ who all either had Parkinson’s or E.T. Post Mortem studies found that all members of the Iowa Kindred all had the same faulty gene, Park 4.
    While Parkinson’s is accepted as being a debilitating condition E.T. seems to be considered as being ‘the poor man’s Parkinson’s’ In my opinion, we have no hope of a cure ever being developed if this is an example of the research being done.

  8. This study is a bunch of bull as far as I am concerned. I am a 40-year-old woman, diagnosed with ET about 5 years ago, and I have maybe 1 – 2 drinks in an entire year. I also have an aunt who has ET and she doesn’t drink either.

  9. I am 30 . i never drink . and I have benign essential tremor. i was recently given an anxiolytic and i find coincidentally found that it reduced my tremor completely when i take it .
    I also discovered the tremor is always worse in the morning or when im dead tired . and less so when i drink. if i have a beer the tremor disappears!

    i think more research need to be done before making the conclusion that drinking is the cause of the tremor , I am looking for a permanent cure – but i dont want to drink daily , nor do i want to take anti anxiety drugs .

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