Tourette Syndrome (Spotlight Series #1)

By Natalie Shpringman (Senior Editor)

As part of our first Spotlight Series on neurological conditions, let’s take a moment to talk about one that is both widely and often inaccurately depicted in popular culture—Tourette syndrome.

You might have encountered Tourette syndrome in TV shows or the Internet. It’s almost always shown as a disorder that causes people to uncontrollably shout out curse words at inappropriate times, often played up for comedic effect. However, coprolalia (the medical term for swearing) actually only affects 10 to 15 percent of people diagnosed with Tourette’s.

There’s a wide variety of possible tics, including motor and vocal tics, which can both be separated into “simple” and “complex”. Simple motor tics manifest as involuntary movements, twitches, or spasms—like blinking, jerking, or shrugging—while simple vocal tics present as vocalizations like clearing your throat, coughing, sniffing, or making any other noise. Complex tics, on the other hand, involve more complicated movements or vocalizations. A complex motor tic can be multiple simple motor tics strung together, or a single complicated motion. A complex vocal tic involves words and phrases, which coprolalia falls under. There are also lesser known vocal tics, like echolalia, where somebody else’s words are repeated by someone with Tourette’s, in addition to palilalia, where someone repeats their own words. No matter what an individual’s tic is, it’s important to understand that by definition, performing that action is out of their control. Trying to suppress and control one’s tics can lead to tension and discomfort, and is not always possible.

Some more background about Tourette syndrome: it’s predominantly diagnosed in males, and it can sometimes go away as the afflicted individual grows older; it’s often comorbid with other disorders like ADHD and OCD.

The interesting thing about Tourette syndrome is that although it definitely has a significant effect on an individual’s life, it generally doesn’t require much treatment beyond education and support. If there are comorbid disorders, those symptoms can be treated, but unless physically harmful, tics themselves don’t often impede someone’s life enough to warrant medication. The most common medications prescribed for Tourette syndrome are both atypical and typical neuroleptics, also known as antipsychotics, which block dopamine receptors in the brain. Although shown to be effective at subsiding tics, neuroleptics also come with a host of other side effects that could potentially result in a poorer quality of life for the individual. People with Tourette syndrome are thus faced with the question of whether they want to live with their symptoms or face the serious side effects of antipsychotic medication.

The biggest thing to take away from this article is that unfortunately, a lot of neurological conditions are left misrepresented and misunderstood in popular culture. It’s important to have empathy for those who are different from us, and take a second to understand where they’re coming from.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to join us in our next article!

Vivian Lu