Motor Tics: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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Motor tics are sudden, jerky movements of the body—typically affecting the shoulders or head—that are not in a person's control. Motor tics can be part of an underlying health condition but can also occur without a known cause. Sometimes, they are a side effect of medication.

This article discusses motor tics—their symptoms, potential causes, and treatment.

Someone holding a water glass having a motor tic.

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Symptoms of Motor Tics

Motor tics are unpredictable jerking movements, typically of the shoulders, neck, or face. However, they can occur anywhere in the body.

Symptoms of motor tics can include:

  • Blinking/eye twitches
  • Sticking the tongue out/other tongue movements
  • Shrugging the shoulders
  • Hopping
  • Squatting down
  • Head twitches
  • Facial expressions
  • Sexual gesturing
  • Snapping fingers
  • Biting the lips
  • Touching people or objects
  • Head banging

Who Is Affected?

Motor tics most commonly develop in childhood and usually improve in adulthood. If they begin later in life, they are more likely to be permanent.

Causes of Motor Tics

Motor tics can occur without a known cause or may be part of an underlying health condition. Less commonly, they can be a side effect of certain medications.

Tic Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5, recognizes three types of tic disorders, as follows:

  • Tourette's syndrome: Criteria for this disorder include two or more motor tics and a verbal tic for more than one year, with onset before age 18.
  • Persistent (chronic) motor or verbal tic disorder: A person with this disorder has either motor or vocal tics; symptoms last more than one year, and onset is before age 18.
  • Provisional tic disorder: Symptoms of this disorder—motor or vocal tics—have been present less than one year and begin before age 18.

Other Health Conditions

Motor tics can occur with other health conditions, such as:

Diagnosing Motor Tics

There are no specific tests used to diagnose motor tics. A healthcare provider typically identifies them based on a review of your symptoms. However, the severity of tics can be rated using assessment tools such as the Yale Global Tic Severity Scale or the Hopkins Motor/Vocal Tic Scale.

What Medications Can Cause Motor Tics?

Motor tics in the face can develop as a side effect of medications. This condition—called tardive dyskinesia—can occur from antipsychotic drugs. Unfortunately, tics can be permanent for some, even after discontinuing the medication.

Tardive dyskinesia can also occur from other types of drugs, including medications that treat:

How to Treat Motor Tics

Motor tics do not always require treatment, especially if they are mild or infrequent. However, motor tics can be embarrassing and significantly impact a person's life. Treatment can include medications or comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics (CBIT).

Medications

Medications do not cure tics, but they can help reduce the frequency and severity of these symptoms.

Examples include:

  • Catapres, Kapvay (clonidine)
  • Tenex, Intuniv (guanfacine)
  • Orap (pimozide)
  • Prolixin (fluphenazine HCL)
  • Haldol (haloperidol)
  • Abilify (aripiprazole)
  • Risperdal (risperidone)
  • Geodon (ziprasidone HCL)
  • Zyprexa (olanzapine)

Haldol, Orap, and Abilify are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of tics. Other medications, such as guanfacine and clonidine, are blood pressure drugs that are used off-label (used to treat something other than what the FDA approves it for) to treat tics.

Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics (CBIT)

Comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics (CBIT) is a specific type of therapy designed to help reduce frequency of tics.

CBIT helps an individual:

  • Recognize their tics and their urges to tic
  • Choose a substitute behavior to replace a tic
  • Identify triggers and learn how to manage them
  • Develop coping strategies and stress management techniques

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Motor tics are not usually harmful, but they can sometimes cause pain if another object is hit during a tic. They can also cause significant emotional distress. If tics are interfering with your or your child's quality of life, see a healthcare provider to discuss potential treatments to reduce their negative impact.

If you observe other behavioral challenges—difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity, impulsivity—see a healthcare provider to rule out other conditions, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, that can occur with tics.

Summary

Motor tics are involuntary, jerky movements that can occur without a specific cause or as part of an underlying health condition. Tics can also occur as a side effect of certain medications. Motor tics are not usually harmful, but can cause pain. They can also significantly impact a person's quality of life. Treatment can include medications and comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics (CBIT).

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing motor tics, don't let embarrassment keep you from getting help. Some causes of this symptom—such as a drug side effect—have a simple fix, such as switching medications. Even if the cause of your tics isn't curable, treatment can reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms, which can be a big improvement in your quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are motor tics dangerous?

    No. Motor tics aren't inherently harmful, but they can potentially cause pain if a person bumps or hits another object as a result.

  • Are motor tics curable?

    No. There is no specific cure for motor tics, but medications and a specific type of therapy, called comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics (CBIT), can often decrease the frequency and intensity of this symptom.

  • Do motor and vocal tics always occur together?

    No. A person can have both motor and vocal tics, or one without the other.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  8. McGuire JF, Piacentini J, Scahill L, et al. Bothersome tics in patients with chronic tic disorders: characteristics and individualized treatment response to behavior therapyBehav Res Ther. 2015;70:56-63. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2015.05.006

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By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.