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What Is Tourettes?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 15 August 2014
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Tourettes syndrome is a brain disorder which ranges from a minor inconvenience for some to a totally debilitating condition for others. It is named after a French physician, Georges Gilles de la Tourette, who laid some of the groundwork for the study of the disorder.

In the popular mindset, Tourettes is characterized by the uncontrollable spouting of obscenities. This particular symptom is known as coprolalia, and is in fact relatively rare among those diagnosed with this disorder. Most reports show between 10% and 15% of those with Tourettes as exhibiting coprolalia. Nonetheless, in the public view, the condition is tightly associated with coprolalia.

The two primary exhibitions of Tourettes that occur in most cases are phonic and motor tics. Phonic tics consist of sounds that are uncontrollable, often low moaning or sharp punctuated noise. Motor tics take different forms and may manifest in different muscle groups throughout the body, often in the face as rapid blinking or convulsion of the lips or cheeks.

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Unlike many neurological disorders, in which physical tics manifest without warning and with no control, the tics of Tourettes are often described as semi-voluntary, because those with the disorder are often able to exhibit some control over them. Most people describe a period before a tic manifests in which they become aware of the urge to express. This may often come as an itching or scratching feeling, or as a strange sensation analogous to the need to sneeze. Eventually the urge becomes too great, and the person must let loose with the tic, be it phonic or physical.

Some people, particularly as they grow older and have dealt consciously with Tourettes for some time, find that they can repress their tics for extended durations. At the outset they may find they can hold back their tics for a few seconds or minutes, and eventually may be able to repress them for hours. Eventually, however, the tics must always be expressed, and when they are they often seem to be intensified by being held in. Many people living with the condition have mastered the art of repressing their tics while in public until they can find a secluded space to let loose with a flurry of verbal or physical tics.

The manifestation of these tics seems to be exacerbated by a number of factors, particularly heightened states of energy. This may be either positive, as in the case of high excitement, or negative, as in situations creating a great deal of stress.

It is thought that anywhere from 1 to 10 people in every 1,000 have Tourettes of some level of severity or another. While the majority have what is diagnosed as minor, a number have the disorder so severe it impedes their everyday life. While medication is available to help treat it, a great deal of those living with the disorder choose to focus instead on learning to integrate their tics into their daily life. This is in part because many people with Tourettes have learned to accept their tics as a part of who they are, and in part because the medications used to treat the condition are not extremely effective and have adverse effects ranging from the minor to very severe.

There is an energetic contemporary movement to help dispel myths about Tourettes in order to make life easier for those with the disorder. Hollywood and a false popular conceptualization of the disorder have helped to demonize it to a point where those who are up-front about having the disease may find themselves socially stigmatized or at a disadvantage when finding work. Groups such as the Tourettes Foundation aim to educate the general public in order to make those living with this condition find an easier time integrating into society.

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