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Tourette syndrome

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jul 31, 2023.

Overview

Tourette (too-RET) syndrome is a disorder that involves repetitive movements or unwanted sounds (tics) that can't be easily controlled. For instance, you might repeatedly blink your eyes, shrug your shoulders or blurt out unusual sounds or offensive words.

Tics typically show up between ages 2 and 15, with the average being around 6 years of age. Males are about three to four times more likely than females to develop Tourette syndrome.

Although there's no cure for Tourette syndrome, treatments are available. Many people with Tourette syndrome don't need treatment when symptoms aren't troublesome. Tics often lessen or become controlled after the teen years.

Symptoms

Tics — sudden, brief, intermittent movements or sounds — are the hallmark sign of Tourette syndrome. They can range from mild to severe. Severe symptoms might significantly interfere with communication, daily functioning and quality of life.

Tics are classified as:

Tics can also involve movement (motor tics) or sounds (vocal tics). Motor tics usually begin before vocal tics do. But the spectrum of tics that people experience is diverse.

Common motor tics seen in Tourette syndrome
Simple tics Complex tics
Eye blinking Touching or smelling objects
Head jerking Repeating observed movements
Shoulder shrugging Stepping in a certain pattern
Eye darting Obscene gesturing
Nose twitching Bending or twisting
Mouth movements Hopping
Common vocal tics seen in Tourette syndrome
Simple tics Complex tics
Grunting Repeating one's own words or phrases
Coughing Repeating others' words or phrases
Throat clearing Using vulgar, obscene or swear words
Barking

In addition, tics can:

Before the onset of motor or vocal tics, you'll likely experience an uncomfortable bodily sensation (premonitory urge) such as an itch, a tingle or tension. Expression of the tic brings relief. With great effort, some people with Tourette syndrome can temporarily stop or hold back a tic.

When to see a doctor

See your child's pediatrician if you notice your child displaying involuntary movements or sounds.

Not all tics indicate Tourette syndrome. Many children develop tics that go away on their own after a few weeks or months. But whenever a child shows unusual behavior, it's important to identify the cause and rule out serious health problems.

Causes

The exact cause of Tourette syndrome isn't known. It's a complex disorder likely caused by a combination of inherited (genetic) and environmental factors. Chemicals in the brain that transmit nerve impulses (neurotransmitters), including dopamine and serotonin, might play a role.

Risk factors

Risk factors for Tourette syndrome include:

Complications

People with Tourette syndrome often lead healthy, active lives. However, Tourette syndrome frequently involves behavioral and social challenges that can harm your self-image.

Conditions often associated with Tourette syndrome include:

Diagnosis

There's no specific test that can diagnose Tourette syndrome. The diagnosis is based on the history of your signs and symptoms.

The criteria used to diagnose Tourette syndrome include:

A diagnosis of Tourette syndrome might be overlooked because the signs can mimic other conditions. Eye blinking might be initially associated with vision problems, or sniffling attributed to allergies.

Both motor and vocal tics can be caused by conditions other than Tourette syndrome. To rule out other causes of tics, your doctor might recommend:

Treatment

There's no cure for Tourette syndrome. Treatment is aimed at controlling tics that interfere with everyday activities and functioning. When tics aren't severe, treatment might not be necessary.

Medication

Medications to help control tics or reduce symptoms of related conditions include:

Therapy

Coping and support

Your self-esteem may suffer as a result of Tourette syndrome. You may be embarrassed about your tics and hesitate to engage in social activities, such as dating or going out in public. As a result, you're at increased risk of depression and substance abuse.

To cope with Tourette syndrome:

Children with Tourette syndrome

School may pose special challenges for children with Tourette syndrome.

To help your child:

Preparing for an appointment

If you or your child has been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, you may be referred to specialists, such as:

It's a good idea to be well-prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help ensure the best use of time. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For Tourette syndrome, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment anytime you don't understand something or need more information.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow time later to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask:

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