Tics are sudden, repetitive movements or sounds that some people
make, seemingly without realizing it. Tics are actually more common
than you might think. Many people have tics that go away in less
than a year or mild tics that don't interfere with their
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, there are a lot of steps that you can take to help you and
your child cope with the condition.
What Is Tourette Syndrome?
Tourette syndrome (TS) is named for the French doctor Georges
Gilles de la Tourette, who first described the condition in 1885.
It is thought that in most cases it is a genetic condition
that's inherited, or passed on from parent to child. Doctors
and scientists don't know the exact cause of TS, but some
research suggests that it occurs when there's a problem with
how nerves communicate in the brain. A disturbance in the balance
of neurotransmitters - chemicals in the brain that carry nerve
signals from cell to cell - may play a role in TS. Tourette
syndrome is not contagious.
Symptoms of Tourette syndrome usually emerge in childhood or in
the teenage years. TS isn't common - only one person in every
1,000 to 2,000 people has the condition.
To be diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, a person must have
several different types of tics - specifically, multiple motor tics
and at least one vocal tic.
Signs and Symptoms
The main symptoms of TS are motor tics (sudden, apparently
uncontrollable movements like exaggerated blinking of the eyes) or
vocal tics (such as when a person repeatedly clears his or her
At certain times, like when a child 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 may be able
to 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 teens with TS to have a
conversation or pay attention in class.
Tics are classified as either simple or complex. Simple motor
tics, for example, happen suddenly and separately from other tics
and involve just a few muscles. Some examples are eye blinking and
grimacing. In contrast, complex motor tics usually involve more
muscle groups. For example, a person 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
In addition, many teens with TS have other conditions, such as
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Learning disabilities and sleeping problems are also common in
people with TS.
Diagnosing and Treating Tourette Syndrome
Some 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, a
person must have tics for at least a year. Although tics may occur
every day or intermittently throughout the year, for TS to be
diagnosed, there must not be a tic-free period longer than 3
months. The neurologist may ask you to keep track of the frequency
and kinds of tics your child is having.
There isn't a specific diagnostic test for TS - instead, the
doctor diagnoses it after taking a medical history and 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. Although there isn't a cure for TS, when Tourette
Syndrome affects a child's schoolwork or daily life, sometimes
doctors suggest medications that can help control the symptoms.
Talk to your child's doctor about whether medication would be
right for your child.
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 what to make of someone who has TS. And if
people stare, kids and teens with TS can feel embarrassed and
frustrated. You or your child might have to explain your
child's condition to people a lot or have to deal with people
gawking at you and your child.
The tics usually get milder as kids grow up, or go away during
adulthood. Although your child may want to stay home from school or
avoid other social situations because of the ticks, there are some
steps you and your child can take that can help him or her cope
with these situations.
- 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
Manchester United soccer goalie Tim Howard, who also played for
the U.S. Olympic team.
- Give a helping hand
. Dealing with TS often makes kids and teens more understanding
of other people's feelings, especially other teens with
problems. Your child may be able to use that special sensitivity
by volunteering. And knowing that he or she helped others might
help build your child's confidence, and lessen any
self-consciousness that he or she might have about feeling
- 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 child with TS will cope differently with its physical,
emotional, and social challenges. Because TS doesn't usually
restrict activities, though, kids who have the condition should be
able to enjoy and participate in the same activities as their
peers, and not let it interfere with their everyday lives.
Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: January 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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