Calling it “more of a nuisance than a disability,” Chris Kennedy on Tuesday acknowledged that he suffers from a hereditary disorder that causes tremors — a day after the Sun-Times reported that the gubernatorial candidate’s hands were shaking during a meet-and-greet with Cook County Democratic leaders.
“I wanted to set the record straight. The shaking is a condition I’ve lived with my whole life called familial [tremors.] It runs in the family. Doctors don’t know what causes it other than it is hereditary and does not cause impairment — more of a nuisance than a disability. In fact, many of my family members live with it. It doesn’t limit any of us in any way,” Kennedy wrote in a statement on Facebook.
“I don’t talk much about it, not because I’m ashamed of it, but because having dealt with it my whole life, it’s just not that big a deal to me. The fact is millions of people live their lives with far, far great challenges than an occasional handshake.
“The fact is improving the health of this state is a whole more important to me than talking about a minor condition. Once in a while, my hand will shake whether I like it or not. But regardless, most of the time, the kind of handshakes you’ll see from me will be on the campaign trail, earning the votes of the people of Illinois who believe in our quest to restore the promise of our state,” he wrote.
Familiar tremor is a subset of essential tremor, which is often mistaken for Parkinson’s disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of essential tremor include tremors in the hands first, affecting one hand or both hands. They begin gradually and worsen with movement and can include a “yes-yes” or “no-no” motion of the head. It can also be aggravated by “emotional stress, fatigue, caffeine or temperature extremes,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Familiar tremor is also referred to as benign essential tremor, and 5 percent of people have the condition, making it the most common movement disorder, according to Dr. Danny Bega, an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Bega said it typically affects the hands, but some suffer voice or head tremors, as well. Those with head tremors might appear to be nodding or shaking.
He said dropping things is an entirely common symptom of the tremors.
“The kind of things people will complain of will be their handwriting getting shaky and sloppy or when they’re holding a fork or a spoon they might shake. They might spill or drop things from their hands. When they’re drinking from a cup they might notice spilling or shaking,” Bega said.
Bega said tremors are typically treated with medications, such as a blood pressure medication or one to calm the nervous system.
He said there are triggers for the tremors.
“Things that would make it worse include an adrenaline response, like with stress after a workout. You can see it with caffeine. You can see a reduction in tremors with alcohol,” Bega said. “And if someone is nervous or anxious, then that will also be a trigger.”
Bega said most people have no disability from the tremors and can function in their day-to-day life, although tremors may get worse throughout the day in response to stress and adrenaline and fluctuate throughout the day.
“In general, a job that’s like a governor, or something like that, you wouldn’t expect a lot of a need for fine motor skills,” Bega said. “So I don’t see how that could be something that would impact his ability.”
Famous people who have suffered from essential tremors include President John Adams; President John Quincy Adams; Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-West Virginia; actress Katherine Hepburn; General Douglas MacArthur, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and rock star Ozzy Osbourne, according to the Tremor Action Network.
Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, spoke for just over seven minutes during the Monday event — his hands visibly shaking during some of the speech. He dropped the microphone, which made an audible thump when it hit the floor.
He was among six candidates and potential candidates speaking before the 50 city ward and 30 suburban township committeemen on the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, which plans to slate a candidate in August.
Other announced or potential gubernatorial candidates at the event Monday included Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), Madison County schools superintendent Bob Daiber, venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker, state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston and Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers.