Tourette Syndrome (TS) is a medical condition affecting around one in a hundred children. The main symptoms are motor and vocal tics – jerky movements or sudden noises that a person makes unintentionally. A common misperception is that all people with TS swear uncontrollably, which is not the case. Only a minority of people with TS (fewer than ten per cent) have swearing tics (or coprolalia). TS is 3 to 4 times more common in men than women.
Most people with Tourette syndrome are believed to have a gene that makes them more likely to develop the condition. However, that gene has not been identified. Other factors, such as emotional and physical health or external stress, may also contribute to the development of Tourette syndrome.
Early symptoms include repeated twitches, blinks or jerks, which are referred to as ‘tics’. In some cases, they may progress to more serious symptoms such as complex physical movements, grunts, coughs, noises or words.
Tourette symptoms often start in childhood around the age of seven or during the early teenage years. For many people, the symptoms fade as the child grows into an adult, but this is not always the case.
How is it diagnosed
Diagnosing Tourette can be problematic as there are no clinical or medical tests for definitively ruling it in or out. There are a number of neurological problems that can look like TS but are in fact something else. This means that a person who thinks they may have TS needs some kind of assessment by an experienced clinician. Sometimes blood tests or scans can help to clarify the diagnosis.
The diagnosis is made based on a history of persistent, frequently-changing motor and vocal tics. In order to be diagnosed with TS, a person needs to have had multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic for at least a year. This is because of transient tics – a brief period or one-off episode of tics – are very common in children (occurring in around ten per cent) and tend to disappear.
TS usually starts between the ages of 6 and 9, gets to its peak in the mid-teens and tends to improve into adulthood. Almost all people with TS get some improvement with time.
There are several drug treatments that can help tics, OCD and ADHD. Drugs that damp down tics are also used in the treatment of schizophrenia but people with tics are usually prescribed much lower doses. On the whole, the drugs are pretty effective at reducing tics but side effects, such as tiredness or stiffness, can cause problems.