Researchers develop app to determine if a patient is faking alcohol tremors

By Aditi Pai
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Alcohol withdrawal tremor appA group of researchers in Toronto have developed an app that aims to measure a patients alcohol withdrawal tremors and determine whether they are real or fake.

A statement from the University of Toronto explains that tremors, which are caused by alcohol withdrawal, are commonly treated with sedatives, but addicts sometimes fake tremors to get prescriptions for the medications.

In order to prevent doctors from prescribing drugs to patients who aren't actually going through withdrawal, PhD candidate Narges Norouzi, Mount Sinai Hospital emergency physician Bjug Borgundvaag, and University of Toronto Associate Professor Parham Aarabi developed the app, which is still being studied -- it's not FDA-cleared or available commercially.

To use the app, patients hold a phone in their outstretched hand with the app opened on the screen. The app will then set a timer and measure the patient's tremors for a period of time. The frequency with which the user's hand shakes is measured, based on the iPhone's accelerometer, to determine whether the patient is actually experiencing tremors.

"Our app may also be useful in assisting withdrawal management staff, who typically have no clinical training, and determining which patients should be transferred to the emergency department for medical treatment or assessment," Borgundvaag said in a statement. "We think our app has great potential to improve treatment for these patients overall."

While developing the app, the researchers conducted a preliminary study at three Toronto hospitals: Schwartz/Reisman Emergency Medicine Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, St. Michael’s Hospital, and Women’s College Hospital. During the study, the app analyzed tremors from 49 patients and 12 nurses who attempted to replicate the symptom.

They found that about 75 percent of patients who actually had tremors had a frequency higher than seven cyclers per second. The study also found that just 17 percent of the nurses who were trying to mimic the tremor had a similar frequency.

Researchers also saw that the app could assess tremor strength at the same skill level of a junior physician, though more experienced doctors could identify real tremors with better accuracy. The team plans to further develop the app and eventually improve its accuracy further.