Tourette's syndrome

Tourette's syndrome is a neurological condition that causes you to make involuntary movements and sounds called tics.

Tics are fast, repetitive muscle movements that cause sudden body jerks or sounds.

Symptoms of Tourette's syndrome

The main symptoms of Tourette's syndrome are tics. There are different types of tic.

Motor tics might include:

  • eye blinking
  • neck and head jerks
  • arm and leg movements
  • pinching
  • kicking
  • hitting
  • falling to the ground

Vocal tics might include:

  • throat clearing
  • grunting
  • sniffing
  • coughing
  • repeating words or phrases
  • animal sounds
  • stuttering
  • singing

Swearing is a rare tic that affects a small number of people with Tourette's syndrome.

Non-urgent advice: Contact your GP if:

  • you or your child start having tics

Children often have tics for several months before growing out of them. These are known as transient tics. Having a tic does not necessarily mean your child has Tourette's syndrome.

Premonitory sensations (urges)

Some people with Tourette's syndrome feel a strong urge before a tic. This urge is described as a similar feeling to before you need to sneeze or itch.

This feeling is called a premonitory sensation or urge. It's only relieved after the tic has been carried out.

Premonitory sensations can include:

  • a dry or sore throat before grunting
  • a burning feeling in the eyes before blinking
  • an itchy joint or muscle before jerking

Suppressing tics

Some people can control or suppress their tics for a short while in certain social situations like in a classroom. This requires concentration and effort but can get easier with practise. This is called suppressibility.

It can be tiring to try to control tics. You might have a sudden intense release of tics when you get home if you've been controlling them all day while in school or work, for example.

Tics might be less noticeable when you're concentrating on a certain activity like reading a book or playing sports. Sometimes tics might be more noticeable when you're relaxing.

Tics are not normally harmful but physical tics can be painful.

Tic triggers

There are times when tics can become worse. Tics might be triggered by:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • excitement
  • sensory overload
  • feeling nervous
  • confrontation
  • fatigue (tiredness)

Associated health conditions

Tourette's syndrome often comes with other health conditions like:

Causes of Tourette's syndrome

The cause of Tourette's syndrome is unknown.

It's not known why more males are likely to be affected by Tourette's syndrome than females.

Sometimes tics run in families.

Diagnosing Tourette's syndrome

There's no single test for Tourette's syndrome. You might be offered tests and scans like an MRI scan to rule out other conditions. You can be diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome at any age.

You might be diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome if you've had several movement and sound tics for at least a year and these started before you turned 18 years of age.

Your GP might refer you to different specialists to help get a diagnosis. For example, a psychiatrist or neurologist. A neurologist is a doctor who specialises in conditions affecting the brain and nervous system.

Getting a confirmed diagnosis can help you and others understand your condition. It can also allow you to access treatment and support.

Treating Tourette's syndrome

There's no cure for Tourette's syndrome. Most children with tics do not need treatment for them. Tics can significantly improve or disappear altogether as patients move into their early 20s. However, some people find their tics continue or worsen in adulthood.

Treatment might be recommended to help you control your tics. There are treatment options available through the NHS.

Treating associated health conditions

Treating associated health conditions like OCD, depression or anxiety can help improve tics.

Cognitive behavioural intervention therapy

This includes different types of behavioural therapy available to help reduce tics like:

  • habit reversal training – involves identifying the triggers that cause tics then find an another way of relieving the urge to tic
  • exposure with response prevention (ERP) – trains you to control your urge to tic tolerating the feeling without doing the tic until the urge passes

If your tics are more severe and affect your daily activities, you might benefit from medicine to help treat your tics.

Medicines for Tourette's syndrome don't help everyone and can cause side effects.

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Source: Scottish Government

Last updated:
26 June 2023