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Tics are involuntary movements or vocalizations, of a repetetive nature. They are common in childhood - about one in thirty children will exhibit some sort of tic at some time during childhood. They are ususally of fairly short duration over time (less than a year), and consist of excessive blinking, facial grimacing, or vocalizations such as frequent coughing, sniffing, clearing the throat, and so forth. Tics may sometimes be the root cause of frustrating searches for the source of a nagging little cough in a child.
The tic might seem to begin either for no appreciable reason, or perhaps be incited by something like an eye irritation which begins a cycle of blinking that doesn't stop when the irritation is gone. The simple tic usually goes away in six months or so, seemingly sooner if the child is not being reminded of it all the time by his family.
Sometimes the symptoms become more chronic. If the symptoms are limited to muscular movements, the condition is called multiple chronic motor tic disorder. If the child has both vocal and motor symptoms which last more than a year, the term Gilles de la Tourette syndrome or more commonly Tourette syndrome.
Symptoms (motor and vocal tics) in Tourette syndrome can be pretty bizarre. Most extreme and distressing are involuntary cursing (coprolalia) and obscene gestures (copropraxia). Suffice it to say that any involuntary repetitive activities or vocalizations in children between 2 and 14 or so deserve consideration for Tourette syndrome.
A significant percentage of children with Tourette syndrome show signs of attention deficit disorder as well. Because treatment of ADD with stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin¨) may possibly initiate or worsen tics, and perhaps may bring on full-blown Tourette syndrome, any new or worsening tics in a child on ADD medication must be immediately reported to the childs physician.
Long term studies of the natural history of Tourette syndrome show the average age of onset as about five to six years old. Tic severity peaks around 10 years of age, with a range between 8 and 12 years. About one fifth of patients with Tourette syndrome will have such severe problems that school is interfered with or impossible. Almost all patients get better with time, and by age 18, half of affected children are tic-free, and nine of ten have only mild or no tics. (Pediatrics, July 1998)