Tourette syndrome is named for Georges Gilles de la Tourette, who first described this disorder in 1885. There is strong evidence that Tourette syndrome is passed down through families, although the gene has not yet been found.
The syndrome may be linked to problems in certain areas of the brain. It may have to do with chemical substances (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) that help nerve cells talk to one another.
Tourette syndrome can be either severe or mild. About 10% of Americans have a mild tic disorder. Far fewer people have more severe forms of Tourette syndrome. Many people with very mild tics may not be aware of them and never seek medical help.
Tourette syndrome is four times as likely to occur in boys as in girls.
Most people with Tourette syndrome first notice symptoms during childhood, between ages 7 and 10.
The most common first symptom is a tic of the face, but other tics may follow. A tic is a sudden, fast, repeated movement or sound.
Symptoms of Tourette syndrome can range from tiny, minor movements (such as grunts, sniffling, or coughing) to constant movements and sounds that can't be controlled.
Tics can include:
Repeated throat clearing or sniffing
Tics may occur many times a day, but they tend to improve or get worse at different times. The tics may change with time. Symptoms usually get worse before the mid-teen years.
Contrary to popular belief, only a small number of patients use curse words or other inappropriate words or phrases (coprolalia).
Many people with Tourette syndrome can stop doing the tic for periods of time. However, they find that the tic is stronger for a few minutes after they allow it to start again. Often the tic slows or stops during sleep.
Signs and tests
There are no lab tests to diagnose Tourette syndrome. However, a health care provider should do an examination to rule out other causes of the symptoms.
To be diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, a person must:
Have had many motor tics and one or more vocal tics, although these tics may not have occurred at the same time
Have tics that occur many times a day, nearly every day or on and off, for a period of more than 1 year. During this period, there must not have been a tic-free period of more than 3 months in a row.
Have started the tics before age 18
Have no other brain problem that could be a likely cause of the symptoms
Many patients with Tourette syndrome who have very minor symptoms are not treated, because the side effects of the medications may be worse than the symptoms of Tourette syndrome.
Drugs used to treat tics include:
Blood pressure medicine called clonidine
Botulinum toxin injections (can control some motor tics)
Dopamine blockers, such as fluphenazine, haloperidol, pimozide and risperidone (can help control or reduce tics, but they have side effects)
Deep brain stimulation has shown promise for treating both the main symptoms of Tourette syndrome and the obsessive-compulsive behaviors, but not when these symptoms occur in the same person.
These conditions need to be diagnosed and treated.
Calling your health care provider
Make an appointment with your health care provider if you have tics that are severe or persistent, or if they interfere with your daily life.
There is no known prevention.
Gleason MM, Boris NW, Dalton R. Habit and tic disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 23.
Jankovic J, Lang AE. Movement disorders: diagnosis and assessment. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann Elsevier; 2008:chap 23.
Lang A. Other movement disorders. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 434.
Kurlan R. Clinical practice Tourette's Syndrome. N Engl J Med. 2010;363(24):2332-2338.
Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, and Department of Anatomy at UCSF, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.