Ben Duncan’s doctor asked him to draw a spiral on a sheet of notebook paper. Tremors sent his hand shaking and scribbling all over the page as he tried to draw. What was left on the paper told the doctor Duncan might be suffering from essential tremors. It was the first time Duncan had ever heard of the condition.
Duncan, a San Marcos-based Air Force veteran, said his condition was debilitating and had him contemplating suicide. But through bioelectric medicine, he says he’s been able to get his life back.
Some 10 million people in the U.S. have ET, a disease that causes involuntary shaking and can make it hard to complete everyday tasks like tying shoes and brushing teeth. The cause of the disease is still unknown.
Staff at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas specialize in treating essential tremors. It’s the most common movement disorder, according to the medical center’s website. UT Southwestern is one of the few academic medical centers in the U.S. to offer something called MR-guided high-intensity focused ultrasound therapy to treat ET.
It’s described as a non-invasive treatment option, but it can be time-consuming. During the treatment, patients have to spend 45-60 minutes in an MRI machine, and it may cause them to get nauseated or feel like they’re falling. After that, the patient goes through a follow up MRI and then has to wait another two hours before being discharged from the hospital.
But Duncan and others are getting relief from a small wrist-worn device called the Cala Trio. The device can relieve their tremors for hours or days at a time.
Duncan was diagnosed with ET about a decade ago, and it’s progressed over time. At one point, he had to be spoon fed and use a walker. It was depressing for him, until one day when a doctor suggested something called Cala TAPS therapy.
Kate Rosenbluth, founder of Cala Health, bills the Cala Trio as “the only non-invasive prescription therapy for ET.”
Duncan’s tremors seemed to come out of nowhere about 12 years ago. One day, he noticed he was having some trouble typing on his keyboard. He could type between 55-60 words a minute, faster than the average person. But over time, his typing slowed to about 25-30 words a minute and other issues began cropping up.
“Something wasn’t right,” Duncan told the Observer
Eventually, he had trouble brushing his teeth or holding anything steady in his hand. “I’m a wood crafter. With the tremors, I had to be really careful around the table saw,” Duncan said.
The tremors became so bad, his wife had to start spoon feeding him.
Once they confirmed Duncan had ET, the doctor prescribed him medication and he consulted with his neurologist about how to treat it further. If he didn’t want brain surgery, he’d have to stick with medication, which came with side effects. Eventually, he was at the maximum dosage on all of his medications and he still didn’t feel like himself. All of the medicine brought him back to around 60% of his pre-tremor state. But, the medicine would usually make him tired, and he couldn’t up the dose any more.
He became frustrated and depressed.
“It’s like a black downward spiral,” Duncan said. “The further down you get, you lose your self-confidence. You lose your self-worth.”
Duncan held up a model fuel gauge and used it to illustrate his mental and physical wellbeing throughout his experience with tremors and the treatment. “When I was normal normal, my gas gauge was full,” he said. “When it gets down into the redline, it’s deep depression. That’s when you can start having suicidal thoughts.”
It was tough on his family and friends too. “I would get so frustrated with myself, I would explode at others,” Duncan said.
To keep from getting too depressed, he said has to look for the humor in his condition. For example, he jokingly says the involuntary shakes can make brushing his teeth or eating corn on the cob surprisingly efficient. Some days, it was hard to find the comedic relief in it all.
“It’s like a black downward spiral." – Ben Duncan, essential tremor patient
Eventually, his doctor told him he had three options: keep taking the medication and live with the side effects, get brain surgery, or try this new FDA-cleared device called the Cala Trio. Duncan said the decision was easy.
His doctor wrote him a prescription for the treatment, and the device was shipped to his doorstep. “It was a life-changing event for me,” he said.
He straps the device around his wrist and receives three 40-minute treatments every day. The device stimulates the nerves in his wrist with electricity to relieve his tremors. This is called neuromodulation. During the treatment, though, he can go about his business.
Duncan keeps a detailed log of the times of his treatment and how it makes him feel, and says it’s brought him back to near normal.
He feels like he’s gotten his independence back and he’s been working with his doctors to ween him off the medication he was taking. Others have had success with the therapy as well. About 64% of patients report persistent relief from the device for an average of 94 minutes at a time, according to Cala Health.
“I wake up with no or very slight tremors in the morning,” he said. “Sure, I have a few limitations. But I can live with those.”
These days, Duncan said he's getting his life back on track and wants to get the word out to people about the treatment that's helping him do it.