What Is a Tic?

A tic is a sudden and uncontrolled movement or sound

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A tic is a sudden, uncontrolled, and repetitive movement or sound. Examples of tics include shrugging, yelling, repeating phrases, hitting, twitching, blinking, grimacing, coughing, and humming that is unintentional.

In this article, learn more about what a tic is, the different types of tic disorders, and their causes, symptoms, and treatment.

A young man experiencing a motor tic around his mouth.

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What Does Having a Tic Mean?

A person who has a tic will make sudden and uncontrolled movements or sounds. Tics can be either motor (movement) or vocal (sounds). They can also either be simple (involving one body part or one noise) or complex (involving multiple body parts or longer phrases).

When someone says they have a tic, they usually have one or more motor or vocal tics. Some tics are very subtle, whereas others can be severe and significantly impact a person's quality of life.

People who have tics cannot control those actions and should not be blamed or shamed for them.

What Are the Symptoms of Tics?

Tics can present in many different ways. However, some are more common than others. Below are some examples of what tics might look like.

Simple Motor Tics

Common examples of simple motor tics include the following:

  • Blinking
  • Sniffing
  • Squinting
  • Shrugging
  • Squatting
  • Jerking
  • Grimacing

Complex Motor Tics

Examples of more complex motor tics include the following:

  • Bobbing the head while jumping
  • Shaking the head while jerking an arm
  • Grimacing while shrugging the shoulders
  • Punching while repeatedly blinking
  • Skipping
  • Dancing
  • Sexual gesturing
  • Repetitively touching objects or other people
  • Self-harming

Simple Vocal Tics

Examples of simple vocal tics include the following:

  • Humming
  • Grunting
  • Coughing
  • Clearing the throat
  • Yelling a single word or syllable
  • Barking

Complex Vocal Tics

Examples of complex vocal tics include the following:

  • Repeating words, phrases, or sentences
  • Copying others' words or phrases (echolalia)
  • Yelling out swear words or vulgar phrases (coprolalia)

It's important to remember that tics are out of a person's control. Some people feel an urge or sensation immediately before or after a tic, called a premonitory urge. Sometimes, a tic can be suppressed for some time; however, this usually is extremely difficult for the person and, eventually, they will tic.

What Are the Three Types of Tics?

Tics can be either motor or vocal, but the frequency with which they occur, the amount of time a person has tics, and the types of tics they have can all determine whether they have a tic disorder or not.

There are currently three types of tic disorders recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5. The DSM-5 is the handbook that mental health professionals use to diagnose disorders.

The three types of tic disorders are:

  • Provisional tic disorder: This is having one or more motor or vocal tics for less than a year, beginning before the age of 18. Provisional tic disorder was formerly called transient tic disorder and is the most common type of tic disorder.
  • Persistent motor or verbal tic disorder: This involves having one or more motor or vocal tics for more than a year, beginning before the age of 18. This type of tic will be either motor or vocal, but not both.
  • Tourette's syndrome: This is having two or more motor or vocal tics for more than a year, beginning before the age of 18.

Are Tics a Mental Illness?

Tics are defined in the DSM-5, which mental health professionals use. However, tic disorders are considered to be neurological conditions, not mental illnesses.


Scientists don't know the exact cause of tics, but their occurrence is likely complex, caused by more than one factor, and different from person to person.

It is believed that tics result from changes in the area of the brain that controls movement. Problems with how dopamine (a neurotransmitter with an important role in movement) breaks down may also cause tics.

Tics may also be due to genetics. In particular, research shows that Tourette's syndrome, the most severe tic disorder, may be due to an inherited dominant gene.

Certain environmental factors have also been linked to the development of Tourette's. These include smoking during pregnancy, low birth weight, other pregnancy complications, and certain childhood infections, like strep throat.

In other cases, tics may be the result of drugs or medications. Cocaine and amphetamines have been associated with tics. Medications prescribed for psychosis can also cause tics. This is referred to as tardive dyskinesia. When tics result from drugs, a tic disorder is not diagnosed.

Associated Conditions

Tics are associated with various health conditions beyond just the three tic disorders mentioned above.

Some health conditions that frequently occur with tics include:


Often, children outgrow tics as they get into their late teens and early 20s. However, this doesn't happen for everyone, and adult-onset tics are also possible.

Unfortunately, there is no simple cure for tics. However, various treatments can help lessen the frequency and severity of tics and help you get back to living a full life.

Some treatments for tics are:

  • Medication: Medications may be prescribed if tics interfere with your daily life and functioning. The types of medications used to treat tics include dopamine blockers, alpha-adrenergic agonists, stimulants, and antidepressants.
  • Comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics (CBIT): Behavioral therapy is a core tenet of treatment for tics. Through behavioral therapy, you're taught to become more aware of your tics and their triggers. CBIT is an evidence-based therapy for tics, in which you're taught to make a voluntary movement when you feel a premonitory urge (an uncomfortable sensation that brings on an involuntary response). This has been shown to reduce tic frequency and severity.
  • Psychotherapy: Talk therapy can help you deal with the mental health effects of living with tics, as well as learn ways to manage anxiety, stress, and other tic triggers.


A tic is a sudden movement or sound over which the person having it has no control. Tics can be movement- or vocal-related, and they can be simple or complex. Some examples of tics include sniffing, blinking, punching, yelling, barking, and repeating sentences. There are three types of tic disorders, but you can also have tics due to medications or other co-occurring conditions

A Word From Verywell

People, especially children, are frequently shamed or shunned for their tics. Tics result from uncontrollable urges with a root biological cause, which is not something to blame or shame about. People who have tics should be treated with empathy.

7 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.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diagnosing tic disorders.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is tourette syndrome?

  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Tourette syndrome fact sheet.

  4. American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry. Tic disorders.

  5. National Health Service (UK). Tics.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk factors and causes for tourette syndrome.

  7. Georgitsi M, Willsey AJ, Mathews CA, et al. The genetic etiology of tourette syndrome: large-scale collaborative efforts on the precipice of discoveryFront Neurosci. 2016;10:351. doi:10.3389/fnins.2016.00351

By Sarah Bence
Sarah Bence, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist and freelance writer. She specializes in a variety of health topics including mental health, dementia, celiac disease, and endometriosis.