Does My Teen Have Tourette's Syndrome?

Tourette's Syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary motor and vocal 'tics' that begin between the ages of 5 and 18. A tic is a sudden, uncontrollable movement defined in the DSM as a "sudden, rapid, recurrent, nonrhythmic motor movement or vocalization."

The frequency, location, and severity of tics change over time. Motor tics in Tourette's 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's Syndrome

This disorder is pronounced tuh-rets, and is often referred to simply as TS. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) describes the primary symptoms as follows:

  • Multiple motor and one or more vocal 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
  • 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 or added to by other tics
  • Symptoms of TS vary from person to person
  • Usually, there is a family history of tics, TS, ADHD, or OCD
  • Males are affected 3 to 4 times more than females

Facts About Tourette's Syndrome

  • It's common for a teen with TS to feel an urge to move their body that continues to build, 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's used to be considered a rare disorder, but it now appears more teens may suffer from mild version than originally thought.
  • The severity varies over time with improvements often seen during late adolescence and into adulthood.
  • Tourette's often occurs with other mental health disorders, most commonly ADHD or OCD.

What to Do If Your Teen Has Symptoms of Tourette's Syndrome

Troubled teens with symptoms of this disorder need to be thoroughly evaluated to determine a correct diagnosis. 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's 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's 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:

  • Education: Knowledge is power; teens with Tourette's and their families' benefit from understanding the disorder. This also makes it easier to explain to others including teachers and coaches, so they can understand the impact of TS on your teen.
  • Join a Tourette's support group to talk and learn from other teens and families living with this disorder.
  • Psychotherapy, individual therapy or behavior therapies such as CBT to educate teens' about TS, identify what makes symptoms worse and learn to deal with issues related to involuntary tics.
  • Medication: Prescribed drugs based on your teen's symptoms, such as neuroleptics or antidepressants, may help control symptoms.
  • Activities: Teens with TS report that being involved in activities such as sports, art or reaching out to others helps to focus mental and physical energy away from problems caused by the disorder.
  • Family therapy to improve understanding of the disorder and ways family members can be supportive.

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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