Tourette’s Syndrome – Not Just A Lot Of Swearing When You’re Tic’d Off

I’m still not sure what happened last week but the past is the past and now is the post.

It still counts if you only think the curse... (JB)

Although I have made two references to the common association between Tourette’s syndrome and spewing forth a stream of expletives before I have even written the first paragraph it appears this association is for the most part just Hollywood glitz and glamour. Tourette’s Syndrome actually has the much broader definition of ‘the presence of multiple physical tics and at least one vocal tic’. In fact this is only the most recent definition I could find, it seems that what we call Tourette’s changes with every new edition of the DSM. Tourette’s also has a fairly unique property amongst tic disorders; its onset is transient and its severity variable. Sometime you got it bad, other times its not even noticeable. Taking it from ‘fairly unique’ to ‘right out there on its own’ is the length of time between episodes, with onset being close to impossible to predict and the length of an episode or period of non-episodes also varying greatly. This syndrome sneaks up on you and you can’t do anything about it till it’s gone. That blows.

Tourette’s was once considered to be a rare and unusual disorder but more recently has become for more common, although it probably has something to do with the widening of the definition of the syndrome. Some estimates have put diagnosis rates at 10 in every 1,000 children but it is also acknowledged that many ‘sufferers’ may not be aware of the syndrome as the vast majority of cases are mild to sub-clinical.

The characteristic ‘tic’ of Tourette’s sufferers can take many different forms. Tourette’s is diagnosed when there is both a vocal and physical tic with the most common being throat clearing and eye blinking respectively. More serious but significantly rarer are the more obvious vocal tics including Coprolalia (the swearing one), Echolalia (repeating others words, also a very good Something for Kate album), Palilalia (repeating your own words). Physical tics are usually mild but some cases of chorea and dystonia associated with tics has been observed.

Taking a photos of someone with compulsive tics can be difficult, or extraordinarily cute (

Whilst medications are available to Tourette’s sufferers they can only treat symptoms and due to the sporadic nature of both onset and severity this makes effective treatment almost impossible. It seems that many sufferers don’t use these medications however as the tics associated with Tourette’s appear to be temporarily suppressible. That one time you see a sufferer let loose with a string of curses, rapidly blinks their eyes for a period of time or clears their throat continuously may be the result of a whole day of suppressed tics. Many describe the sensation like trying to ignore an itch, you can suppress the urge to scratch and achieve sweet release or you can consciously control your response, eventually you will have to scratch that itch though.

Now, I wouldn’t be a very good microbiologist if I didn’t find some way to talk about bacteria when considering a neurological disorder would I?

Whilst it is generally accepted that Tourette’s is inherited some people are claiming that Tourette’s and other related disorders including OCB may exaggerated or indeed caused by a Streptococcal infection early in life. What is this syndrome called you ask? Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections or, and I’m not even kidding, (PANDAS)

Ready? On 3, 1…2…3… Awwwwwwwwwwww! (


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Leckman, J. F., et al. (2006). “Phenomenology of tics and natural history of tic disorders.” Adv Neurol 99: 1-16.

Scahill, L., et al. (2006). “Disruptive behavior problems in a community sample of children with tic disorders.” Adv Neurol 99: 184-190.

Swedo, S. E., et al. (1998). “Pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections: clinical description of the first 50 cases.” Am J Psychiatry 155(2): 264-271.



Filed under James' Corner

6 responses to “Tourette’s Syndrome – Not Just A Lot Of Swearing When You’re Tic’d Off

  1. murfomurf

    I knew a kid (would now be well-grown) in Adelaide when I was working with autistic people who was very classically autistic, who also had Tourette’s. He couldn’t talk or communicate conventionally and only understood the names of a few things, spending most of his time fiddling about or running from room to room. However, on occasions when he was in over-stimulating environments with lots of people, he would “do the Tourette’s thing” and shake himself furiously and shout obscenities. This was usually at the supermarket and his lovely quiet mum was mortified! It seemed to be a sort of “fit” with him and he obviously repeated loudly some verbal explosions he had heard from his dad and cousins! I think they were able to get some control with some anti-epileptic medications.

    • Some anti-epeleptics simply throw a wet blanket over brain chemistry and therefore electrical activity. In the same way a dampening of the brain activity could control the episodic nature of Tourette’s. Having said that Tourette’s remains very difficult to treat.

  2. I wonder what happens to people who have coprolalia but are raised in a society where swearing never happens. What do they yell out?

    • As the coprolalia is due to an apparent loss of inhibition control I would guess the obscenities would just be culture specific. Just a guess though. I’ll have to look into it.

  3. I don’t know if I’m more excited about finding out what Echolalia means or the PANDAS acronym! Awesome!!!

  4. Clem

    Being one of the few but unfortunate sufferers of Copralalia, I can honestly say that the Hollywood stereotype does exist. Even so, it’s annoying to hear others mimic that stereotype when they first find out that you have Tourette’s. Keeping a good attitude and having the presence of mind to politely set them straight helps, but you can often tell that the attitude given by others is often a sign of their own discomfort.

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