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Tourette Syndrome

What Is Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is a condition that affects a person's central nervous system and causes tics (movements or sounds that a person can't control and that are repeated over and over). 

There are two kinds of tics — motor tics and vocal tics. Motor tics are twitches or movements a person makes but can't control. Vocal tics are sounds a person makes but can't control. To have Tourette syndrome, a person must have at least two motor tics and one vocal tic. The person has to have the tics every day or off and on for over a year — and they have to start before the person turns 18.

What's It Like to Have Tourette Syndrome?

Tics are 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.

What Are the Symptoms of Tourette Syndrome?

People with Tourette syndrome have both motor tics and vocal tics. Motor tics are movements of the muscles a person can't control, and they include eye blinking, head shaking, jerking of the arms, and shrugging. Vocal tics are sounds that a person with Tourette syndrome makes with his or her voice and can't control. Throat clearing, grunting, and coughing are all common vocal tics. 

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

The type of tics often change over time. How often the tics happen often changes, too. Tics are usually 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 disappear completely during the deeper stages of sleep.

Sometimes a person with Tourette syndrome might have other conditions, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or trouble learning.

Who Gets Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is much more common in boys than in girls, and it always starts before age 18 — usually between the ages of 5 and 9.

Why Do People Get Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is a genetic condition, which means it's passed down from a person's parents. Tourette syndrome is not contagious and you can't catch it from someone who has it.

No one knows the exact cause of Tourette syndrome, 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.

How Is Tourette Syndrome Diagnosed? 

Anyone who has a tic will need to see a doctor, and maybe a neurologist (a doctor who knows a lot about the nervous system).  

All kids who have Tourette syndrome have tics — but a person can have tics without having Tourette syndrome. Some health conditions and medicine, for instance, can cause tics. And many kids have tics that disappear on their own in a few months or a year. So, it's important for doctors to know what's causing the tics.  

Since there is no one test for Tourette syndrome, a doctor will get a good family history and medical history, and look at the person's symptoms. Sometimes a doctor will order several other tests like blood tests, EEG, and brain scans.

How Is Tourette Syndrome Treated?

There's no cure for Tourette syndrome, but most of the time no treatment is needed. A kid with Tourette syndrome 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 psychiatrist can be helpful, too. Tourette syndrome isn't a psychological problem, but a therapist can teach coping and relaxation skills that can help. They can also help with other problems that can be connected to Tourette syndrome, like ADHD and anxiety. 

Stress or being 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.

Many kids with Tourette syndrome get better as they get older. But, some people will always live with Tourette syndrome. The good news is that it won't make them less intelligent, and adults with Tourette syndrome can lead normal, happy lives.

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
Date reviewed: October 2016

Note: All information on KidsHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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