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Tourette Syndrome

Playing ice hockey is Luke's favorite thing to do. But when Luke has a game someplace new, he often has to deal with stares and weird looks from strangers because he sometimes shouts unexpectedly or blinks his eyes hard. To people who don't know him, it looks like he's in pain or needs help. These tics are symptoms of Luke's Tourette syndrome. 

What Is Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome (TS) is a disorder that affects the body's brain and nervous system by causing tics — sudden, repetitive movements or sounds that some people make, seemingly without realizing it. A person with Tourette syndrome has mulitple motor tics and at least one vocal tic

Tics are actually more common in teens than you might think. You may know someone who has either a motor tic (sudden, uncontrollable movements like exaggerated blinking of the eyes) or a vocal tic (sounds such as throat clearing, grunting, or humming). 

Tourette syndrome is a genetic disorder, which means it's the result of a change in genes that's either inherited (passed on from parent to child) or happens during development in the womb. As with other genetic disorders, someone may have a tendency to develop TS. But that doesn't mean the person will definitely get it. 

The exact cause of Tourette syndrome isn't known, but some research suggests that it happens when there's a problem with how nerves communicate in certain areas of the brain. An upset in the balance of neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain that carry nerve signals from cell to cell) might play a role.

People with Tourette syndrome usually first notice symptoms while they're kids or teens. TS affects people of all races and backgrounds, although more guys than girls have the condition.

And, Tourette syndrome is not contagious. You can't catch it from someone who has it. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

The main symptoms of Tourette syndrome are tics — multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic. Motor tics can be everything from eye blinking or grimacing to head jerking or foot stomping. Some examples of vocal tics are throat clearing, making clicking sounds, repeated sniffing, yelping, or shouting. In rare cases, people with TS might have a tic that makes them harm themselves, such as head banging.

At certain times, like when someone is under stress, the tics can become more severe, happen more often, or last longer. Or, the type of tic may change.

Some people 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 Tourette syndrome to have a conversation or pay attention in class.

Many teens with Tourette syndrome also have other conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), learning disabilities, and anxiety.

What Do Doctors Do?

Tics should be checked out by a doctor. Some family doctors may refer a person with Tourette symptoms to neurologist (a doctor who specializes in problems with the nervous system)The neurologist may ask the person to keep track of the kinds of tics involved and how often they happen.

For a diagnosis of TS, a person must have several different types of tics — specifically, multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic  for at least a year. They may happen every day or from time to time throughout the year.

There isn't a specific test for Tourette syndrome. Instead, the doctor looks at the family history, the medical history, and the person's symptoms to make a diagnosis. Sometimes, imaging tests like magnetic resonance imaging tests (MRIs), computerized tomography (CT) scans, electroencephalograms (EEGs), or blood tests can rule out other conditions that might cause symptoms similar to TS.

Just as Tourette syndrome is different for every person, treatment can be different, too. While there isn't a cure for Tourette syndrome, most tics don't get in the way of day-to-day life. If they do, doctors may suggest medicines to help control symptoms.

Tourette syndrome is not a psychological condition, but doctors sometimes refer teens to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Seeing a therapist won't stop their tics, but it can help to talk to someone about their problems, cope with stress better, and learn relaxation techniques. A therapist also can help them with any other problems, like ADHD, OCD, and/or anxiety. 

Dealing With Tourette Syndrome

Many people don't understand what Tourette syndrome is or what causes it, so they might not know what to make of someone who has TS. And if people stare, it can feel embarrassing or frustrating. People with TS might have to explain their condition a lot or have to deal with people thinking they're strange.

Although it's not easy to have Tourette syndrome, there's good news — the tics usually get milder or go away during adulthood. In the meantime, it can help to focus on something else.

Things that teens with Tourette syndrome can do include:

  • Get involved. Some people say that when they're focused on an activity, their tics are milder and less frequent. Sports, exercise, or hobbies are great ways to focus mental and physical energy. Some well-known athletes have Tourette syndrome.
  • Lend a helping hand. Dealing with Tourette syndrome often makes people more understanding of other people's feelings, especially other teens with problems. Use that special sensitivity by volunteering.
  • Embrace creativity. Creative activities such as writing, painting, or making music help focus the mind on other things. 
  • Find support. The Tourette Syndrome Association sponsors support groups with others who understand the challenges of Tourette syndrome.
  • Take control. People with Tourette syndrome can feel more in control of their lives by researching, asking their doctors plenty of questions, and taking an active role in their treatment.

Each person with Tourette syndrome will cope differently with its physical, emotional, and social challenges. TS doesn't usually restrict activities, so people who have it can enjoy themselves and pursue their dreams and goals just as their friends do.

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

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

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