Does My Teen Have Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary motor and vocal 'tics' that begin before age 18. A tic is a sudden, uncontrollable movement defined in The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as a "sudden, rapid, recurrent, nonrhythmic motor movement or vocalization."

The frequency, location, and severity of tics may change over time. Motor tics in Tourette include eye blinking, grimacing, head jerking, kicking and shoulder shrugging. Vocal tics include grunts, throat clearing, clicking sounds, shouting, snorts, obscenities, sniffing, and tongue clicking.

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Symptoms of Tourette Syndrome

This disorder is often referred to simply as TS. The DSM-5 describes the primary symptoms as follows:

  • Multiple motor and one or more vocal tics
  • Initial symptoms are usually tics of the face, limbs, arms, or trunk: The most common first symptom is a facial tic, eye blink, nose twitch, or grimace that is replaced by or added to other tics
  • Tics occur many times a day, nearly every day, for more than 1 year
  • The tics cause significant distress or impairment in social, education, or other areas of daily functioning
  • Tics are not due to substance abuse or a medical condition

Symptoms of TS vary from person to person. Males tend to be affected three to four times more frequently than females.

Tourette often occurs with other mental health disorders, most commonly with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Usually, there is a family history of tics, TS, ADHD, or OCD.

Facts About Tourette Syndrome

  • It's common for a teen with TS to feel an urge or sensation that continues to build until the tic is completed, but this is not true for everyone.
  • Over time tic patterns usually change, may come and go, improve or worsen, or develop a new type of tic.
  • Contrary to the way this disorder is often portrayed in the media, the involuntary use of obscene words or gestures is uncommon with this disorder.
  • Tourette used to be considered a rare disorder, but it now appears more teens may suffer from a mild version than originally thought.
  • The severity varies over time with improvements often seen during late adolescence and into adulthood.

What to Do If Your Teen Has Symptoms of Tourette Syndrome

Teens showing symptoms of TS need to be thoroughly evaluated to determine a correct diagnosis—and to assess for the presence of other co-occurring conditions. A good place to start is with your physician, who may refer your teen to a neurologist for further testing and exploration of the usefulness of medication to treat symptoms.

Having Tourette syndrome may make a teen feel different and uncomfortable around other people, in addition to feeling out of control. The primary focus in treating teens with Tourette is to provide help in living with the tics associated with the disorder, understanding factors that improve or worsen the tics, as well as improving self-esteem and coping skills.

Recommended Treatments Include:

  • Support: Join a Tourette support group to talk and learn from other teens and families living with this disorder.
  • Education: Educating peers, teachers, coaches, and coworkers can be helpful in improving understanding of TS and reducing stress for the teen living with TS.
  • Therapy: Psychotherapy, individual therapy, or behavior therapies such as comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics (CBIT) can be useful to educate teens about TS, identify what makes symptoms worse, and learn to deal with issues related to involuntary tics. Family therapy can improve understanding of the disorder and outline ways in which family members can be supportive.
  • Medication: Prescribed drugs based on your teen's symptoms, such as neuroleptics or antidepressants, may help control symptoms, but may not eliminate them completely.
  • Activities: Being involved in activities such as sports, art classes, or other group-based programs may help to focus mental and physical energy away from issues caused by the disorder.

Most teens will have some improvement in the frequency and severity of tics as they get older, but will need a considerable amount of positive support to understand and manage the disorder so that symptoms do not get worse—or create other problems related to the disorder.

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