You are sitting at a restaurant having dinner. Feeling thirsty, you reach for your water glass on the table. You grab and lift the glass, but your hand is shaking uncontrollably. Minutes pass, but even with much effort you are unable to steady your hand enough to bring the glass to your mouth to drink.

Essential tremor – a neurological movement disorder that causes involuntary shaking of the hands, head, and voice – affects millions of Americans and is common in people over the age of 65. It can greatly impact activities of daily living, like eating, dressing, writing, or typing.


“Medications can be used to help treat essential tremor and other movement disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, but they are not always effective or may lose effectiveness over time,” says Dr. Michael Hayes, Neurological Director for Functional Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).“They also can carry significant side effects.”

Recently introduced treatment options have emerged for people who do not respond to medication therapies. Doctors at BWH are offering deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat severe movement disorders that are not responding to medication. DBS uses a device that is similar to a pacemaker to send signals to an area of the brain that controls movement. The signals block impulses that cause tremors and other symptoms of movement disorders. The neurotransmitter device is programmed and adjusted during several office visits with a neurologist after surgery.

Most people who undergo DBS see a dramatic reduction in tremors and other involuntary movements and also are able to greatly reduce medication doses. Approved by the FDA for essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease, DBS is selectively offered for patients with dystonia, another movement disorder, and is being evaluated for certain mental health issues on a case-by-case basis.

“Conditions treated with DBS will continue to expand,” says Dr. Hayes, who evaluates people who may benefit from DBS.  “We have yet to reach the potential for this innovative therapy.”

– Jessica F.

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