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Demystifying Tourette's syndrome (TS)

Tourette’s syndrome (TS), named after the French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette who first described it in 1885, is an inherited neurological condition characterised by repeated, involuntary, rapid and sudden movements and vocalisations known as tics. The condition is fairly widespread with one schoolchild in every hundred and more than 300,000 children and adults affected by TS in the UK.

Facts about Tourette’s syndrome

Tourette’s syndrome occurs in people from all ethnic groups and affects both genders. It is, however, about three to four times more common in women than men. The condition usually starts in childhood and continues well into adulthood.

In North America where the most severe forms of TS have been witnessed, approximately one in 100 people exhibit at least milder or less complex symptoms of the disease, such as vocal and chronic motor tics.

While TS is often chronic with symptoms that last a life time, the worst tic symptoms are generally experienced in the early teen years of the patient. Improvements are then typically seen in the patient's late teen years, continuing on to adulthood.

Symptoms of TS

The symptoms of TS do not follow any specific pattern. Some people experience very mild symptoms, while others experience sever symptoms. Tics, however, can be classified into two distinct groups:

  • Simple tics – these include head or shoulder jerking, tongue clicking or sniffing and eye blinking.
  • Complex tics – these may appear purposeful, such as hopping, jumping and twirling. Sometimes the most dramatictic of the symptom here are repeating the words or phrases of others (called echolalia), uttering words out of context and vocalising socially in appropriate or obscene words (called coprolalia).

People affected by Tourette’s syndrome may also exhibit symptoms of psychological problems, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and self-harm behaviour, although a clear link of these symptoms to TS isn't definitive.

Treatment of TS

Early diagnosis of Tourette's syndrome is essential for proper treatment. Diagnosis is done by observing the pattern of symptoms before a diagnosis is confirmed. Although there is no cure for TS as yet, the condition can be treated and effectively managed.

Most people affected by TS are able to manage the condition on their own, but if the condition interferes with your daily life use medication to control symptoms. Some patients also benefit from behavioural therapy or psychotherapy, as well as relaxation therapy.

It is important to note that the behaviour of people affected by TS is involuntary and not deliberate. Patients cannot control symptoms during episodes. Support and understanding from parents, family members, friends, teachers and other people is, therefore, vital for the good recovery of the patient.

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