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Recently, 12 teenage girls who attend the same upstate New York high school suddenly began experiencing uncontrollable movements and sounds called “tics,” which are common symptoms of Tourette Syndrome. Although experts say these teens most likely are suffering from a psychological disorder -- Tourette’s is a neurological disorder -- their story is nonetheless calling attention to a condition that afflicts more than 200,000 children in the U.S.
“Tourette Syndrome is typically first noticed in elementary-school children and worsens during puberty,” says Donald Gilbert, M.D., director of the Tourette Syndrome and Tic Disorder Clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Boys, like 8-year-old Brent Hurrle, are four times more likely than girls to have Tourette's. At age 5, Brent started swiveling his head frequently from side-to-side. “We thought he was having vision problems, but his eye exam was fine,” says his mom, Agena Hurrle, of Indianapolis. Next came constant guttural, throat-clearing sounds. “It was then that his pediatrician suggested a tic disorder like Tourette’s,” says Hurrle.
The condition can be diagnosed up to age 18, but Dr. Gilbert says most kids show symptoms by age 9 at the latest. While there’s no specific diagnostic test for Tourette’s, parents can help identify the problem by answering these questions.
What are your child’s symptoms? Facial tics -- rapid eye blinking, grimacing, nose twitching --are often the first signs of Tourette. Kids may repeatedly touch a body part or another person, jerk their heads, twitch or shrug their shoulders. They can also have vocal tics, such as constant throat clearing, humming or repeating other people’s words. “These motor and vocal tics often worsen when a child is anxious or excited, but they rarely occur simultaneously,” notes Gilbert. And contrary to popular belief, Tourette's most common symptom is not uncontrollable swearing or using inappropriate words. In fact, only about 15 percent of children have vocal tics that cause them to swear.
How long has your child had these symptoms? “For a Tourette Syndrome diagnosis, tics need to occur almost daily for at least a year,” says Gilbert. Another notable symptom: A child with Tourette’s will still have mild tics while sleeping.
What’s his health history? Your child’s chances of having Tourette Syndrome are greater if you or a relative has it. Kids who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, learning disabilities or sleep problems are also more prone to the condition.
Treating Tourette Syndrome
If you think your child could have Tourette's, talk to his doctor. She may refer you to a neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. “Almost 90 percent of the time, symptoms diminish -- or disappear altogether -- during adulthood,” says Gilbert. While many kids don’t need treatment, behavioral therapy and certain medications can help if the problem affects a kid's self-esteem. “Depending on the severity, your child may encounter problems at school or with peers,” says Hurrle. “Arm yourself with knowledge so you can advocate for your child.” In Brent's case, he doesn't take any medications, but he is in therapy focused on his “short fuse” and other behavioral problems. Brent gets help at home, too -- his parents see a therapist to help him manage those issues.