The Truth About Tourette

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Tourette Syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by tics – involuntary, rapid, sudden body movements – and repetitive vocalizations such as whoops, coughs, barks and coprolalia (involuntary swearing).

The disorder is named after Georges Gilles de la Tourette, a French neurologist who described the symptoms of nine patients in 1885. Before Dr. Tourette’s research, those with the disorder were often considered mad or "hysterical."

The exact cause of Tourette Syndrome is unknown, but researchers do know that it is transmitted genetically. Studies indicate that the symptoms of Tourette stem from an imbalance of messenger chemicals (also called neuro-transmitters) in the brain.

Nobody knows how many people have Tourette Syndrome, especially since many milder cases go undiagnosed. The National Institutes of Health officially estimate that 725,000 Americans have some form of the disorder. Most studies suggest higher numbers. They also indicate that Tourette occurs in all ethnic groups, and that men are three to four times more likely than women to have the disorder.

Symptoms usually begin in childhood and multiply during adolescence. The types of symptoms change over time. Tics and vocalizations wax and wane in both severity and frequency.

Many Tourettic people see a marked improvement in their late teens or early 20s. As many as one-third experience remission in adulthood.

Three-fourths of people with Tourette also have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), characterized by anxious behavior such as walking in precise patterns or repeatedly washing hands. A large percentage also have attention deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity (ADD or ADHD).

Most Tourettic people require no medication. When symptoms are severe or disabling, popular medications include Haldol, Catapres, ORAP, Prolixin, Permitil and Klonopin. Stimulants such as Ritalin, often prescribed for treatment of ADHD, may increase tics.

The social consequences of Tourette — from being taunted to being shunned and ostracized — are more harmful to children than the physical. Because their symptoms increase with stress, students with Tourette may underperform on standardized tests. Evaluation specialists test children with Tourette off the clock to decrease their stress and attain more accurate results.