Tourette syndrome is a neurodevelopmental condition that leads you to engage in involuntary sounds and movements known as tics.
Symptoms of Tourette syndrome, like repetitive and uncontrollable movements and sounds, are typically diagnosed during childhood.
About 0.63% of children in the United States have received this diagnosis, with boys being 3 times more likely than girls to live with Tourette syndrome.
The lack of widespread knowledge about what Tourette syndrome is may have contributed to misconceptions and stigma around the condition. These, on top of the complex symptoms, can make it challenging for those who live with Tourette syndrome, and for their loved ones.
But Tourette syndrome can be managed, and treatment is available.
The formal symptoms of Tourette syndrome are motor tics and verbal tics. Both of these can be either simple or complex.
Vocal tics involve involuntary sounds and noises:
- Simple vocal tics: Brief sounds made by making air through the nose or mouth. Examples include throat clearing, sniffing, and grunting.
- Complex vocal tics: Coordinated patterns of sound that usually include saying or whispering words or phrases. Examples include repeating words (palilalia) and repeating other people’s words as you hear them (echolalia). Some people with Tourette also live with coprolalia.
What is coprolalia?
Coprolalia is a complex vocal tic. It involves the involuntary, repetitive use of obscene or socially unacceptable language. It’s often the most stigmatized tic because it’s unclear what causes it.
As with other tics, the person with the condition cannot control saying these words.
There’s a misconception that coprolalia is a defining symptom of Tourette syndrome. In reality, fewer than one-third of people with the condition experience it.
Motor tics refer to uncontrolled and repetitive movements:
- Simple motor tics: Fleeting, repetitive movements that involve a limited number of muscle groups. Examples include lip biting, blinking, and grimacing.
- Complex motor tics: Coordinated sequences of movement that involve multiple muscle groups. Examples include gesturing, bending, and jumping or hopping.
For a health professional to reach a diagnosis, a person must meet the following criteria:
- Motor tics and at least one vocal tic. Both types of tics must have been present at some point but don’t need to occur at the same time.
- The tics have persisted for at least 1 year.
- Any or all symptoms began before age 18.
- Tics can’t be attributed to another condition, injury, or substance use.
What is not Tourette syndrome?
Occasional motor or vocal tics that may show up during stressful times aren’t considered a symptom of Tourette syndrome.
Even those tics that are persistent don’t always mean you have Tourette.
Tourette syndrome isn’t the only tic disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM–5). Persistent (chronic) motor or vocal tic disorder, and provisional tic disorder are also listed.
All three disorders have overlapping symptoms, but they differ in two ways: The type of tics and the duration of symptoms.
People with persistent (chronic) motor or vocal tic disorder experience either motor or vocal tics (not both) for at least a year.
People with provisional tic disorder can have any combination of tics, but their symptoms last less than a year.
Although experts have actively studied the subject, it’s still unclear what causes Tourette syndrome.
Research does indicate that genetics play a role. Tourette syndrome tends to run in families. A child of someone living with the condition has about a 50% chance of developing it.
In most cases, the cause of Tourette syndrome is probably a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
What induces tics in Tourette syndrome?
The severity of tics often varies daily. A person with Tourette syndrome may have long periods without experiencing tics at all or periods of more intense symptoms.
Several factors can induce or worsen tics, such as:
- anxiety disorders
- chronic or acute stress
Environmental influences can also play a role.
Sometimes, if a person encounters a particular gesture or sound, they may have the urge to mimic it. This contributing factor can be hard to predict, but identifying these environmental cues may become easier over time.
There’s no cure for Tourette syndrome.
Some people experience an improvement in mild symptoms after a few years. These symptoms may fade away entirely in some cases. But the condition can also be permanent, and symptoms may become persistent for many people.
Even though there’s no cure for Tourette, treatment is available to help you manage symptoms.
Some people with Tourette syndrome experience mild symptoms that don’t require treatment.
But if you do, there are a few options:
Tourette syndrome can look and feel different for everyone, so there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment.
Discussing your challenges and symptoms with a healthcare professional can help them develop a few options that may work in your case. Medication can be one of them.
There are two classes of drugs that have been used for the management of Tourette’s tics:
- alpha-agonist hypotensive agents (e.g., clonidine, guanfacine): These medications are prescribed for high blood pressure and used off-label for the management of tics.
- antipsychotics (e.g., risperidone, olanzapine): These medications are prescribed to treat symptoms of psychosis. They block dopamine, which plays a role in tic expression.
Psychotherapy and behavioral modification are other options to manage symptoms of Tourette syndrome.
- becoming more aware of all your tics and what induces them
- engaging in competing behaviors whenever you feel the urge to tic
- adjusting your daily routine to reduce tics
A therapist will help you reverse some of your habits and engage in relaxation techniques to accomplish these goals.
Working with a mental health professional can also support your symptom management, particularly if you’ve developed additional symptoms or conditions.
Many people living with Tourette syndrome experience
- learning disabilities
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- social anxiety
- clinical depression
Working with a mental health professional can help you manage symptoms of these other conditions, which could also support your Tourette syndrome management.
Tourette syndrome doesn’t have a direct impact on your life expectancy.
Your symptoms may not go away on their own, although some people experience significant improvement with treatment.
In any case, living with Tourette syndrome doesn’t affect how long you’re going to live.
Tourette syndrome is a neurological condition characterized by motor and vocal tics. Tics are involuntary, sudden, and repetitive movements and sounds.
The condition is usually diagnosed in childhood and is more common in boys than girls.
Although the causes of Tourette syndrome have not been yet established, genetic and environmental factors are likely at play.
Mild symptoms of Tourette syndrome often improve on their own over time. And though there’s no cure for the condition, treatment options are available for more severe cases.