Background: Prevalence estimates vary 2750-fold among the 20 studies of essential tremor (ET). It is not clear how the choice of diagnostic criteria affects research results.
Objective: To determine the impact of alternative sets of diagnostic criteria on the diagnosis of ET.
Methods: As part of the Washington Heights-Inwood Genetic Study of ET (WHIGET), a population-based study of ET, 285 subjects who include 36 case subjects with probable or definite ET, 34 case subjects with possible ET, and 215 normal subjects were interviewed and examined. All diagnoses in WHIGET were assigned by 2 neurologists. Ten of the 20 published prevalence studies of ET provided diagnostic criteria for ET. Criteria differed in terms of requirements for the distribution, duration, and severity of tremor. These 10 sets of criteria were then each separately applied to the subjects in the WHIGET cohort to determine their impact on the diagnosis of ET.
Results: Depending on which diagnostic criteria were applied to the WHIGET cohort, the proportion of WHIGET case subjects with definite or probable ET who would have been diagnosed as having ET was as low as 14% and the proportion of WHIGET normal subjects who would have been diagnosed as having ET was as high as 51%. Diagnostic criteria that included a positive family history of ET or a lengthy duration of tremor would have classified many WHIGET case subjects with ET as normal, whereas criteria that did not specify a minimal tremor severity would have classified many WHIGET normal subjects as having ET.
Conclusions: Alternative sets of diagnostic criteria for ET greatly impact on the diagnosis of ET. For population-based studies, information on tremor type and severity rather than family history should be included in diagnostic criteria.