Roughly 3 to 8 people out of 1,000 suffer from what are commonly called “nervous tics.” There are medications and other options for those with the disorder. Here, a Novant Health neurologist lays out the options, corrects some misunderstandings and explains why he doesn’t like the phrase.
What is a tic? A simple tic is one movement, like a blink or a clearing of the throat. A chronic motor tic simply means it’s a condition that has been in place for some time. Tourette syndrome also falls under the umbrella of tic disorders. It applies to those who exhibit physical tics coupled with verbal tics in which they make noises or speak. Sometimes, the vocalizations can be unintentional phrases and words, but that’s less common than is sometimes highlighted on TV or in movies.
What’s wrong with calling them “nervous tics”? Most people with tics are not nervous or struggling with anxiety. In fact, they’re often Type A personalities — people who are leaders or get things done. In some cases, they can be people who exhibit some kind of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Many also have parents or someone else in their family background who had tics.
What causes the condition? There is still a lot that is not known. One of the misunderstood aspects of tics is that they’re involuntary. That’s not always true. People who have the condition often suffer an unpleasant sensation and that discomfort is relieved by the twitches, blinking and other movements. In other words, they’re trying to ward off those sensations. In some cases, people can suppress the sensation in the short term, but that can affect their ability to focus and also cause the tic or movement to be more severe when the patient finally releases.
What are the treatment options? Medications can have a rather dramatic effect. It can take some time to find the right drug, combination of drugs and dosage. The goal is to improve the person’s quality of life. For example, reducing the need to suppress the tics so they can concentrate in class or at work can be a very significant thing. If you can diminish the frequency from once a minute to five minutes, for instance, that can be dramatic for that patient. That's a huge weight lifted off their shoulders. There can be side effects that can make people tired, or bring on dizziness or lightheadedness. In some cases, counseling can make a difference. Being able to manage situations that bring on more tics or even finding ways to relieve the sensation of discomfort without a tic can be the goals of these therapies.
What about children with the disorder? Because school children can be harsh and tic disorders carry stigma, parents should have their children seen by a pediatric neurologist as early as possible. In some cases, The tics can go away in the late teens in some instances.