Tourette (too-RET) syndrome is a nervous system (neurological) disorder that starts in childhood. It involves unusual repetitive movements or unwanted sounds that can't be controlled (tics). For instance, you may repeatedly blink your eyes, shrug your shoulders or jerk your head. In some cases, you might unintentionally blurt out offensive words.
Signs and symptoms of Tourette syndrome typically show up between ages 2 and 12, with the average being around 7 years of age. Males are about three to four times more likely than females to develop Tourette syndrome.
Although there's no cure, you can live a normal life span with Tourette syndrome, and many people with Tourette syndrome don't need treatment when symptoms aren't troublesome. Symptoms of Tourette syndrome often lessen or become quiet and controlled after the teen years.
Tics — sudden, brief, intermittent movements or sounds — are the hallmark sign of Tourette syndrome. Symptoms range from mild to severe. Severe symptoms may significantly interfere with communication, daily functioning and quality of life.
Tics are classified as either:
Tics involving movement (motor tics) — often facial tics, such as blinking — usually begin before vocal tics do. But the spectrum of tics that people experience is diverse, and there's no typical case.
In addition, if you have Tourette syndrome, your tics may:
Before the onset of motor or vocal tics, you'll likely experience an urge called a premonitory urge. A premonitory urge is an uncomfortable bodily sensation, 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 a tic or hold back tics until they find a place where it's less disruptive to express them.
When to see a doctor
Many children develop tics lasting a few weeks or months that go away on their own. But whenever a child shows unusual behavior, it's important to have a medical evaluation to identify the cause and rule out serious health problems.
The exact cause of Tourette syndrome isn't known, and there's no known way to prevent it. Tourette is a complex syndrome, likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Theories about the causes of Tourette include:
Risk factors for Tourette syndrome include:
People with Tourette syndrome have a normal life span and often lead healthy, active lives. However, having Tourette syndrome may increase your risk of learning, behavioral and social challenges, which can harm your self-image.
In addition, having Tourette syndrome means you're likely to have other related conditions, such as:
Preparing for your appointment
You'll likely start by seeing your family doctor or pediatrician. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a doctor who specializes in conditions of the nervous system (neurologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
Prepare a list of questions for your doctor to help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most to least important. 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
Tests and diagnosis
There's no specific test that can diagnose Tourette syndrome. Instead, doctors must rely on the history of symptoms to diagnose the disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) determines the criteria for a diagnosis of Tourette syndrome. Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM is used by mental health professionals to diagnose certain conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
The criteria to diagnose Tourette syndrome include these:
Diagnosis of Tourette syndrome may be delayed because families and even doctors are sometimes unfamiliar with the symptoms, or the symptoms may mimic other problems. Eye blinking may be initially associated with vision problems, for instance, while sniffling may be attributed to allergies.
Because other serious health conditions can cause motor or vocal tics, your doctor may suggest having tests to rule out other causes. These tests include blood tests or neuroimaging studies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Treatments and drugs
There's no cure for Tourette syndrome. Treatment is intended to help control tics that interfere with everyday activities and functioning. When tics aren't severe, treatment may be unnecessary.
Possible medications to help control or minimize tics or to reduce symptoms of related conditions — such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — include:
Coping and support
Your self-esteem may suffer as a result of Tourette syndrome. You may be embarrassed about your tics. You may 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
To help your child:
Last Updated: 2012-08-10
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