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Brain & Nervous System

Tourette Syndrome

What Is Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is a condition that affects a person’s central nervous system and causes tics. Tics are unwanted twitches, movements, or sounds that people make. To have Tourette syndrome, a person must have at least two tics that affect body movement and one that is a sound.

If you are having trouble imagining what tics are like, they’re kind of like hiccups. You don’t plan them and you don’t want them. You can try tricks to make the hiccups stop, like drinking water upside down, but you can’t just decide to stop hiccuping. Hiccups that last too long can even start to hurt and feel uncomfortable. Tics can be like that, too.

Sometimes, tics can also be a little like “scratching an itch.” You don’t really want to scratch the itch, but you just can’t help it. In these situations, the person has some control over the tic. The person feels an urge to make a movement or a sound before actually doing it. The person can even hold back the tic for a while. But eventually the person will have to let the tic out.

Anyone who has a tic will need to see a doctor, and possibly a neurologist, which is a doctor who knows a lot about the nervous system. It’s important to know what’s causing the tic. All kids who have Tourette syndrome have tics, but a person can have tics without having Tourette syndrome. Some health conditions and medicines, for instance, can cause tics. And many kids have tics that disappear on their own in a few months or a year.

Who Gets Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome can affect people of all races and ethnic groups. It’s more common in boys than in girls, and it almost always starts before age 18 — usually between ages 5 and 7. Even though kids with Tourette syndrome can get better as they get older, many will always have it. The good news is that it won’t make them less intelligent or need treatment at a hospital or doctor’s office.

Sometimes a person with Tourette syndrome might have other conditions, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or trouble learning. There are also lots of people who have other tic disorders who don’t have Tourette syndrome.

Why Do People Get Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is probably, in part, a genetic condition, which means that a person inherits it from his or her parents. Tourette syndrome is not contagious. You cannot catch it from someone who has it.

Doctors and scientists don’t know the exact cause, but some research points to a problem with how nerves communicate in the brain. Neurotransmitters — chemicals in the brain that carry nerve signals from cell to cell — may play a role.

What Are Tics?

People with Tourette syndrome have motor tics and vocal tics. Motor tics are movements of the muscles, like blinking, head shaking, jerking of the arms, and shrugging. Vocal tics are sounds that a person with Tourette syndrome might make with his or her voice. Throat clearing, grunting, and humming are all common vocal tics.

A person with Tourette syndrome will sometimes have more than one type of tic happening at once. Tics can happen throughout the day, although they often occur less, or go away completely, when a person is concentrating (like working on a computer) or relaxing (like listening to music).

The type of tic often changes over time. The frequency of the tic — how often it happens — usually also changes. Tics are often worse when a person is under stress (like when studying for a big test) or excited or very energized about something (like at a birthday party or a sports activity). Tics can even happen when a person first falls asleep, but usually slow down and then disappear completely during the deeper stages of sleep.

How Is Tourette Syndrome Treated?

There’s no cure for Tourette, but often no treatment is needed. The person is able to deal with the tics and still do normal stuff, like go to school and play with friends. If tics are making it hard to do normal stuff, a doctor may suggest medicine. Visiting a psychologist or therapist can be helpful, too. Tourette isn’t a psychological problem, but a psychologist can teach coping and relaxation skills that can help.

Being stressed or upset can make the tics worse, and kids with Tourette syndrome might feel upset because of the tics and the problems that go with them. Counselors and Tourette syndrome organizations can help kids learn how to explain tics to others.

How Should I Act Around Someone Who Has It?

Kids who have Tourette syndrome want to be treated like everybody else. They can do regular stuff, just like other kids. In fact, Tim Howard grew up to be a soccer star. Howard is the starting goalkeeper for both Everton (in the English Premier League) and the United States national team.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014