Few conditions are as widely misunderstood as Tourette Syndrome, and sadly, even fewer are so readily targeted for cheap laughs and rude humor.
The reality of living with Tourette’s is a much more complex picture than the simple “outbursts of swearing” depicted in sitcoms and movies (this symptom is known as coprolalia).
Actual Tourette’s patients can have symptoms ranging from blinking, shoulder shrugs, and other motor tics to humming, throat clearing, and various vocal tics. Patients may have only one symptom or a combination of symptoms; it’s possible for some to grow out of these symptoms by adulthood, while others face a worsening of symptoms with age. All symptoms are, of course, completely involuntary, and if left untreated or ill-managed, they could seriously interfere with a patient’s life.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that, while there is no cure, there are treatments to help manage tics caused by Tourette Syndrome—and in some milder cases, patients don’t actually need medications to manage their symptoms. For cases where tics pose a risk of physical harm or are so distracting that they interfere with school and work, doctors may want to look at drugs similar to those used for ADHD or OCD.
While there’s not much in the way of FDA-approved medications specifically for Tourette’s, doctors will often work with their patients to try different medications and dosages to find a combination of benefits and side effects that works for the individual.
Beyond medication, some patients use behavioral therapy to learn how to reduce the severity and frequency of tics.
Others use a behavioral intervention called habit reversal that focuses on an awareness of tics and “programming” a new, alternative behavior. Other, newer techniques like Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics (CBIT) blend different management strategies with a greater awareness of surroundings and situations that may “trigger” the tics.
While the “right” treatment will mean different things to different patients, doctors and researchers can agree that one of the keys to successfully managing Tourette Syndrome is raising awareness of what the disease actually is and is not.
That means helping parents of children with Tourette’s learn how the disease affects their child and what they can do to help manage the symptoms. It also means helping the larger community—from schools to workplaces and everywhere in between—understand that people with Tourette’s are not being deliberately disruptive. Teasing, disciplinary actions, and a general lack of support will only increase the stress people with Tourette Syndrome face.
It may be a while before popular culture gets the memo that Tourette’s is more than just profane outbursts. Until then, let’s speak up and start changing the conversation today.