Tics — sudden, repetitive movements or sounds that some people make, seemingly without being aware of it — are more common than you might realize. Indeed, many people have tics that go away in less than a year or mild tics that don’t interfere with their lives.
But in some kids, tics are more severe or long lasting. If a child has tics for more than a year, it is called a chronic tic disorder. In some cases, these tics can be part of a condition called Tourette syndrome.
The tics associated with Tourette syndrome tend to get milder or go away entirely as kids grow into adulthood. Until that happens, though, parents can help their child cope with the condition.
About Tourette Syndrome
Tourette syndrome (TS) is named for French doctor Georges Gilles de la Tourette, who first described the condition in 1885. It’s thought to be a genetic condition that’s inherited in most cases. Experts don’t know the exact cause of TS, but some research points to changes in the brain and problems with how nerve cells communicate. A disturbance in the balance of neurotransmitters — chemicals in the brain that carry nerve signals from cell to cell — might play a role.
Symptoms of Tourette syndrome usually emerge in childhood or the teen years. TS isn’t common — only about 7 in every 1,000 people have it, and boys are more likely to be affected. The condition is not contagious.
Signs and Symptoms
The main symptoms of TS are motor tics (sudden, apparently uncontrollable movements like exaggerated blinking of the eyes) or vocal tics (apparently uncontrollable uttered sounds such as throat clearing, grunting, or sniffing).
At certain times, like when someone is under stress, the tics can become more severe, more frequent, or longer, or the type of tic may change altogether. (This is also true of people who have tics that are not part of Tourette syndrome.)
Some kids can suppress their tics for a short time. But tension builds, and it eventually has to be released as a tic. And if a person is concentrating on controlling the tic, it may be hard to focus on anything else. This can make it hard for kids with TS to have a conversation or pay attention in class.
Tics are classified as either simple or complex. Simple motor tics usually involve just one group of muscles. Some examples are eye blinking and grimacing. In contrast, complex motor tics usually involve more muscle groups and might look like a series of movements. For example, someone might touch a body part or another person repeatedly. In rare cases, people with TS might have a tic that makes them harm themselves, such as head banging.
Simple vocal tics can be throat clearing, sniffing, or humming, whereas complex vocal tics can involve repeating other people’s words (a condition called echolalia) or involuntary swearing (called coprolalia).
To be diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, a child must have several different types of tics — specifically, multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic.
In addition, many kids and teens with TS have other conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Learning disabilities and sleeping problems are also common in people with TS.
Diagnosing and Treating Tourette Syndrome
Pediatricians and family doctors may refer a child with symptoms of TS to a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in problems with the nervous system. Before TS can be diagnosed, someone must have tics for at least a year. They may occur every day or from time to time throughout the year. The neurologist may ask you to keep track of the kinds of tics your child is having and how often.
There isn’t a specific diagnostic test for TS — instead, the doctor diagnoses it after taking a medical history and doing a physical exam. Sometimes, doctors use imaging tests like magnetic resonance imaging tests (MRIs), computerized tomography (CT) scans, electroencephalograms (EEGs), or blood tests to rule out other conditions that might have symptoms similar to TS.
Just as TS is different for every person, the treatment for it varies, too. While there isn’t a cure for TS, sometimes doctors suggest medicines to help control symptoms if they start to interfere with schoolwork or daily life. But most tics do not get in the way of day-to-day life and won’t need any medication.
TS is not a psychological condition, but doctors sometimes refer kids and teens with TS to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Seeing a therapist won’t stop tics, but it can help kids and teens to talk to someone about their problems, cope with stress better, and learn relaxation techniques.
Dealing With Tourette Syndrome
Many people don’t understand what TS is or what causes it, so they might not know how to act around someone who has TS. And if people stare, kids and teens with TS can feel embarrassed and frustrated. Someone who has it might have to explain the condition to others or deal with teasing or gawking.
These tips can help kids with TS cope:
- Get involved. Some experts say that when kids and teens are engrossed in an activity, their tics are milder and less frequent. Sports, exercise, or hobbies are great ways for kids to focus mental and physical energy. Some well-known athletes have TS, like soccer goalie Tim Howard, who plays for Everton (in the English Premier League) and for the U.S. national team.
- Give a helping hand. Dealing with TS often makes kids and teens more understanding of other people’s feelings, especially other young people with problems. They might use that special sensitivity by volunteering. Knowing that they’ve helped others might help build confidence and lessen any self-consciousness about feeling different.
- Embrace creativity. Creative activities such as writing, painting, or making music help focus the mind on other things — and they help it develop. There’s speculation that composer Mozart and British writer Samuel Johnson both had TS.
- Find support. The Tourette Syndrome Association sponsors support groups with others who understand the challenges of TS.
- Take control. People with TS can feel more in control of their lives by researching TS, asking their doctors plenty of questions, and taking an active role in their treatment.
Each person with TS will cope differently with its physical, emotional, and social challenges. TS doesn’t have to disrupt everyday life, though — kids who have it don’t have to restrict their activities and can enjoy doing the same things as other kids.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014