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Tourette's Syndrome

What Is Tourette's Syndrome?

Tourette's syndrome is a condition that causes people to make sudden, uncontrolled movements or sounds, called tics. For example, someone with Tourette's might blink or clear their throat over and over again.

About 100,000 Americans have full-blown Tourette's syndrome, but a larger number of people have a milder form of the disease. It often starts in childhood, and more boys than girls get it. 

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Causes of Tourette's Syndrome

Tourette's has been linked to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is involved in movement. The disease may stem from an illness that affects nerve cells in the brain. People with Tourette's have problems with the chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, that send messages from nerve to nerve.

Doctors don't know exactly what causes Tourette's syndrome, but genes are believed to play a role. It's likely that there is more than one cause.

People who have family members with Tourette's are more likely to get it themselves. But members of the same family may have different symptoms of the disease.

Tourette's Syndrome Symptoms

The main symptom of Tourette's is tics -- sounds or movements a person can't control. There are two types of tics:

Motor tics are body movements. They include:

  • Blinking
  • Jerking the arm or head
  • Making a face
  • Shrugging the shoulder
  • Twitching the mouth

Vocal tics are sounds, such as:

  • Clearing the throat
  • Coughing
  • Grunting
  • Repeating what someone else says
  • Shouting
  • Sniffing
  • Swearing
  • Yelping

Tics can be simple or complex. A simple tic involves one or just a few parts of the body, like blinking the eyes or making a face.

A complex tic involves many parts of the body or saying words. Jumping and swearing are examples of complex tics.

Some tics are so mild they're not even noticeable. Others happen often and are obvious. Stress or excitement can make tics worse. More severe tics can be embarrassing and can affect your social life or work. 

About half of people with Tourette's also have symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They have trouble paying attention, sitting still, and finishing tasks. The reason for this link is unclear.

Many people with Tourette's also have problems with:

  • Anxiety
  • Learning disabilities such as dyslexia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) -- thoughts and behaviors they can't control, like washing their hands over and over again

Getting a Diagnosis

If you have symptoms of Tourette's, your doctor may recommend you see a neurologist, a doctor who treats diseases of the nervous system. There aren't any real tests for Tourette's. Your doctor may do an MRI, CT scan, or other imaging test of the brain to look for other conditions that have symptoms similar to those of Tourette's.

Your doctor will ask about your family medical history and your specific symptoms. If you’ve had both vocal and motor tics for a year or longer, you may be diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. 

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