(NEW YORK) — Phyllis Walker’s hands used to shake so badly she had to stop eating at the dinner table with her family.
“As a normal thing, I pretty much ate over the sink, so that I wouldn’t spill things,” the 77-year-old grandmother from Ivor, Va., said. “I could not use a fork and knife, couldn’t — just didn’t want to sit at the table and be embarrassed.”
Just four hours away in Burtonsville, Md., 56-year-old Dot Highberg was also losing control of her hands. She tried medication after medication, each working for awhile, but eventually, the shaking would return with a vengeance.
“The tremors were just getting worse and worse. It wasn’t getting better and it wasn’t going to get better,” Highberg said. “It looked like I was gonna be on medication for the rest of my life.”
Diagnosed with essential tremors, a neurological disorder that causes patients to lose control of their hands, heads and voices, both women were desperate for help. For them and the estimated 10 million other Americans who suffer from the disorder, life was a struggle.
Until one day they both got the chance to take back control of their lives. Dr. Jeff Elias, associate professor of neurology at the University of Virginia, and his team were beginning a clinical trial for patients suffering from essential tremors — using a technique stripped right from a scene in a science fiction movie. Elias was planning to use ultrasound waves, focused to a specific point located by using an MRI machine, to treat the part of the brain that was causing the shaking.
“We’re able to focus these 1,024 ultrasound beams to a single point and — treat or — or disrupt a lot of the tremor cells that are causing the problem,” he said. “Essentially tremor’s a neuro-degenerative problem, like Parkinson’s disease. And it probably develops from an abnormal circuitry in the brain. And we’re able to treat that circuit and restore it to a more normal condition.”
Walker, who learned about the surgery from her daughter-in-law, immediately took interest. She was accepted into the trial and underwent the procedure in August 2011 for the shaking in her right hand. The results were immediately clear — once the four-hour procedure had ended, Walker’s shaking had stopped.
For Highberg, who underwent the procedure in October, the surgery was a miracle.
“I was able to eat fruit without it falling off of the spoon, without it falling off the fork, I was able to drink without using both hands and without shaking,” she said, amazed that she could complete such a simple task. “It was wonderful.”
The procedure was unique not only in that it could safely and immediately deliver results, but also because it’s reportedly pain-free and there is virtually no recovery time. Patients were required to stay overnight in the hospital for observation, but both were able to walk, talk and perform tasks that they weren’t able to in years after they left the MRI machine.
For Elias, a successful trial using focused ultrasound surgery is just the tip of the iceberg.
“We could send ultrasound waves to almost any organ of the body. So cancers, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy. They’re really all potentially treatable with this type of technology,” he said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio