Perhaps you’ve noticed that your child is blinking excessively, clearing his throat or twitching – or all three. You wonder – is he stressed, nervous or troubled? Does he need therapy? Or perhaps you suspect that he’s just developed a bad habit. Maybe you’ve been nagging him to stop doing it – all to no avail. But here’s the more realistic possibility – your child has a tic disorder. A tic disorder is a repetitive sound and/or movement that is performed compulsively without a person’s conscious intention. If a person makes a sound (like throat clearing or coughing), the action is called a tic disorder. Similarly, if a person makes a movement (like shrugging his shoulders or turning his head to the right), it is also called a tic disorder. However, if a person make both repetitive sounds and movements, then it is called Tourette’s Disorder.
What is Tourette’s Syndrome?
Also called GTS (Gilles de la Tourette’s Syndrome, named after the French doctor who first described the condition), Tourette’s Syndrome is a kind of tic disorder. Tics are involuntary, repetitive and usually non-rhythmic movements or vocalizations. Persons with Tourette’s suffer from frequent and unintentional motor actions, such as blinking, nodding, shrugging or head jerking and they are also prone to unintentional productions of sounds such as barking, sniffing, grunting, or the repetition of particular words or phrases (including, in some cases, vulgar expressions – see below).
In some cases, Tourette’s Syndrome causes coprolalia — a compulsion to shout obscenities. There are also occasions when persons with Tourette’s engage in movements that may cause harm to their selves, such as involuntary slapping or punching of one’s own face.
Is Tourette’s Syndrome Common?
Tourette’s Syndrome, and tics in general, are more common than most people realize. It is estimated that 15 to 23 % of children have single or transient tics (tics that last a year or so and then stop), although not all cases progress to Tourette’s Syndrome. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about as many as 200,000 Americans have the severe form of Tourette’s, while as many as 1 in every 100 experience more mild symptoms.
Tourette’s usually begins in childhood, with onset between the ages of 2 to 14 years-old. Episodes of Tourette’s wax and wane, and patients may experience long periods of time when they don’t have active symptoms. In general, symptoms are worse during late adolescence, and then gradually taper off towards adulthood.
Tourette’s is often found along with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and/or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
What Causes Tourette’s Syndrome?
The exact cause of Tourette’s Syndrome is not yet identified, but it’s worth noting that the condition tends to run in families. This implies that Tourette’s may be organic in origin, although environmental causes are not being discounted. The roots are traced to some abnormality in the brain structure as well as the production of brain chemicals that regulate voluntary motor behavior. Tourette’s syndrome also seems to be affected by stress, worsening during periods of stress and improving during vacations and other low stress periods.
What is the Treatment for Tourette’s Syndrome?
As with many conditions, prognosis is best when one employs a multi-disciplinary approach. Because of the link of symptoms with stress, training in stress management, as well as counseling and therapy is a good start for people with the condition. Some people have found alternative treatments helpful as well, such as Bach Flower Therapy, herbal supplements, and nutritional supplements. Any therapy that helps foster relaxation and well-being may be helpful or at least supportive in this condition. Support groups, for those with the condition, as well as their loved ones, are also helpful. When symptoms are severe, or if they cause the individual significant distress, there are psychoactive medications that can help manage Tourette’s symptoms.
For a professional diagnosis and treatment plan, it’s best to consult a neurologist, psychiatrist, and/or a clinical psychologist.