THE SCARY SCIENCE BEHIND TOURETTE SYNDROME (Also called: Tourette’s)

Tourette syndrome or Tourette’s syndrome (abbreviated as TS or Tourette’s) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that begins in childhood or adolescence.

Tourette's syndrome

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.

Is Tourette’s syndrome the only tic disorder?

Tourette syndrome is the most severe tic disorder, but there are other types. Your healthcare provider will use your symptoms to determine what kind of tic disorder you have.

Tic disorders include:

  • Provisional tic disorder: Motor or vocal tics (one or both) for less than one year.
  • Persistent (chronic) tic disorder: Motor or vocal tics (not both) for more than one year.
  • Tourette syndrome: Motor and vocal tics (both) for more than one year.

SYMPTOMS AND CAUSES OF TOURETTE SYNDROME

What causes Tourette syndrome?

The exact cause of Tourette syndrome (TS) is unknown. The condition tends to run in families, so genes probably play a role. Problems with how your brain metabolizes (breaks down) neurotransmitters may also contribute to TS. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, are chemicals in the brain that regulate behavior and movement.

What are the risk factors?

Risk factors for Tourette syndrome include:

  • Gender: Males are three to four times more likely than females to develop TS.
  • Family history: Parents may pass TS down to children through genes (inherited).
  • Prenatal health: Children born to mothers who smoked or had health complications during pregnancy may be at a higher risk for TS. Low birth weight may also increase the chances of TS.

What are the symptoms of Tourette syndrome?

Tics are the main symptom of Tourette’s. They usually start between ages five and seven, peaking around age 12.

Tics are complex or simple:

  • Complex tics involve many movements and muscle groups. Jumping is a complex motor tic. Repeating certain words or phrases is a complex vocal tic.
  • Simple tics are quick, repeated movements that only involve a few muscle groups. Shoulder shrugging is a simple motor tic. Sniffing is a simple vocal tic.

Other examples of motor tics include:

  • Arm jerking.
  • Bending at the waist.
  • Eye blinking.
  • Head jerking or twisting.
  • Hopping.
  • Jaw movements.
  • Twisted or distorted facial expressions.

Examples of vocal tics include:

  • Barking.
  • Grunting.
  • Shouting.
  • Sniffing.
  • Throat clearing.

Are tics ever harmful?

Some tics are harmful, such as motor tics that cause someone to hit themselves in the face. A vocal tic called coprolalia leads to swearing or inappropriate language. This type of tic can make someone seem purposefully disruptive or offensive, even though it’s an uncontrollable impulse. Children with coprolalia might receive unwarranted punishment at school or at home.

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.

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