What you need to know about Tourette syndrome

By Drum Digital
17 June 2014

What is Tourette syndrome and how can you help your child or someone else with the condition? We answer the most common questions and give tips that work.

What is it?

Tourette syndrome is a neurological condition (a condition that affects the nervous system) that usually begins in childhood. It results in unusual, uncontrolled, repeated movements or inappropriate sounds (so-called tics). The condition is named after Dr Georges Gilles de la Tourette, a French neurologist who was the first to describe it in 1885.

Who gets it?

The symptoms are usually observed during childhood. The average age at which it begins is seven. Boys are three times more likely to suffer from it than girls. If you have a family history of it the risk of suffering from it is greater.

For some sufferers Tourette syndrome is a chronic condition and the symptoms are present all their lives. Most sufferers experience the worst symptoms during their early teens. The symptoms improve during the late teens or adulthood.

Tourette syndrome is more common than doctors once thought. About one in every 2 500 people has the condition but many more display some of the characteristics, such as chronic movements or obsessive thoughts.

If someone has Tourette’s the chances are good they’ll suffer from the other associated conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), learning difficulties, sleep disturbances, depression or an anxiety disorder.

The symptoms

The nervous tics are classified as simple or complex and can be motor (to do with movement) or oral.

Simple tics are sudden, of short duration and repeated, and involve a limited number of muscles. They include motor symptoms such as blinking the eyes, shrugging the shoulders, roving eyes, sticking out the tongue or a jerking movement of the head, or oral symptoms such as hiccupping, shouting, clearing the throat or making barking sounds.

Complex tics are definite, coordinated movement patterns that involve various muscle groups. Motor examples are touching the nose, smelling objects, bouncing up and down and touching people, and oral examples include using different tones of voice, repeating your own words or phrases, repeating others’ words or phrases, using vulgar language or swearing.

Treatment

There’s no cure for Tourette syndrome.

Because the tics are usually not harmful most people with Tourette’s don’t take medication to suppress the symptoms. But for those whose tics interfere with their daily activities and functioning there are a variety of drugs available. Examples are haloperidol or fluphenazine. One type of medication won’t work for everyone and no medication gets rid of the symptoms completely. There’s also a good chance medication will have side effects.

Botox injections into the affected muscle can help with simple tics.

It may also be a good idea to receive psychotherapy. Psychological problems don’t cause Tourette’s but the syndrome can lead to certain psychological problems. A professional can help your child handle the social and emotional problems they may be experiencing.

How do I help my child?

  • Be informed. Learn as much as possible about the syndrome and don’t hesitate to ask your doctor if there are things you’re wondering about.

  • Inform others. Make appointments with your child’s teachers, the parents of their friends and other people they regularly come into contact with. If they’re informed about what the syndrome involves they’ll be better able to handle potentially uncomfortable or difficult situations.

  • Build up your child’s self-image. The main effect of tics on your child’s life (if they have harmless tics) is that they’ll embarrass your child. Children with the condition may be hesitant to get involved in social activities, which can lead to isolation. Support your child’s interests and friendships because this will contribute to a good self-image.

  • Get support. Ask your doctor if there are support groups in your area. If there aren’t any, consider starting one. The internet may be a source of help. Click here for the website of the American Tourette Syndrome Association and the advice it has for parents of children with Tourette’s.

  • Try to relieve your child’s stress. Although Tourette’s is a neurological condition (not caused by external factors) many mothers agree stressful situations cause their children’s symptoms.

  • Adapt your child’s diet. Although there’s no conclusive proof of this, it might be a good idea to eliminate potential food allergens from their diet. These include dairy products, eggs, nuts, shellfish, gluten and preservatives. Also cut out caffeine.

  •  Make sure your child gets exercise. People with neurological conditions such as Tourette’s, who get regular exercise, are inclined to display fewer symptoms. Exercise can also improve your child’s mood.

-Suzaan Hauman

Sources: medicinenet.com, childmag.co.za, health24.com, mayoclinic.com, tsa-usa.org

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