Could Your Teen Have Tourette Syndrome?

If you hear the term, “Tourette syndrome,” you might envision a person shouting inappropriate words with no provocation. Although that is an uncommon manifestation of Tourette syndrome, which is also called TS, it is often what people imagine. Many times, TS presents as motor tics and verbal tics which can be as mild as sniffing or throat-clearing. Because the condition usually appears during childhood or the teen years, if your teen is dealing with repeated motions, it’s a good idea to have him or her evaluated for TS.


What Is Tourette Syndrome?


Tourette Syndrome is a neurological condition that causes motor and vocal tics. A tic is a movement or a vocal sound that is sudden, rapid, and recurring. Some children have tics that are not associated with Tourette Syndrome. In order to qualify as TS, the tics must occur every day (or almost every day) for at least one year that are not caused by substance use or another medical condition. Many people find that their tics increase during times of stress.


A tic might start out as blinking, wrinkling the nose, or other facial movements. Some people have tics in their shoulders or their legs. A vocal tic results in some sort of sound. This can include throat-clearing, grunting, sniffing, making clicking or snorting sounds, or saying words. Usually a tic can be controlled temporarily, but it takes a lot of effort and might mean that your teen can’t concentrate on anything else.


How Is Tourette Syndrome Diagnosed?


There is no test for TS. If you are concerned that your teen might be affected by this condition, the first thing you should do is see his or her primary care physician. The doctor will do a thorough exam to try to rule out other types of conditions that can cause tics. From there, it’s likely that your teen will be referred to a neurologist, which is a doctor who specializes in how the brain works.


The neurologist will have your teen keep track of his or her tics and what they were doing when the movements or vocalizations started happening. The doctor will also look at your family history. Often, a teen with Tourette syndrome has family members with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other types of mental health conditions. In addition, your teen might have an MRI, a CT scan, and bloodwork to rule out other disorders while keeping track of symptoms.


What Are the Treatments for Tourette Syndrome?


There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for TS. Sometimes, lifestyle changes will help reduce symptoms to the point where no further treatment is needed. Some teens find that participating in sports and other physical activities can help reduce symptoms. Often, counseling or therapy can help teens deal with the diagnosis and learn ways to explain their condition to others. Sometimes just knowing that they can effectively communicate what the problem is to others reduces a teen’s stress and embarrassment. It can also help put others at ease, which can improve any social anxiety that the TS is causing your child.


Depending on the severity of the symptoms, some teens will be offered medication. Keep in mind that these medicines don’t cure TS, but they might ease the symptoms. The medications might be used for the short- or long term, but it’s important not to suddenly stop taking them without specific advice from the doctor. Some medications used for TS are the same ones used for narcolepsy. Antidepressants help in some cases, too.


Living With Tourette Syndrome


As your teen grows into adulthood, there’s a good chance that the symptoms will begin to resolve. Particularly with teens who have mild TS, the condition might be gone by the time they are in their 20s. Sometimes, symptoms disappear but will come out again during times of stress. For example, your adult child might have tics when going through relationship changes, a new job, or unrelated health problems but be free from symptoms the rest of the time.


One important consideration to keep in mind is that if your teen or adult child takes medications for Tourette syndrome, they must always disclose that to their doctors. This is because some of the medications used for TS can interact with other types of medication that might be prescribed for other health conditions.


Also, keep in mind that having tics does not mean that your child will not be able to have a job, get married, and otherwise function as a perfectly happy, fulfilled adult. There are several famous actors, television personalities, and sports stars who have Tourette syndrome.


Other Conditions That Can Co-Exist With Tourette Syndrome


Tourette syndrome can occur by itself, but a lot of times, it happens in teens who have OCD, anxiety, or ADHD. If your teen has those other mental health conditions, it’s wise to keep an eye out for the tics that might be indicating Tourette syndrome. Also, if these conditions run in your family, your teen might have a higher risk of developing TS.


The tics associated with TS can also cause some mental health conditions.

  • One is social anxiety. If your teen is afraid that he or she will have tics and look stupid or be judged by others, this can develop into social anxiety.
  • Another is depression. Teens who are going through health challenges might be more prone than others to develop depression, so it’s important to be aware of the signs of adolescent depression.


While your teen might be embarrassed or worried about a diagnosis of Tourette Syndrome, it’s important to reassure him or her that the vast majority of people with TS live normal, productive lives. Also, it can be comforting to know that the symptoms of TS often get better during adulthood, particularly when people are not dealing with a stressful time. Talk to your teen’s pediatrician and neurologist about whether the condition is likely to resolve or improve over time. Also, don’t be afraid to seek mental health counseling for your teen if he or she is having trouble dealing with this new struggle.