Tics are purposeless, rapid and repeated contractions of a group of muscles that result in movement (a motor tic) or the production of a sound (a vocal tic).
Motor tics often involve the muscles of the face, head and neck, with movements such as blinking, lip smacking, facial twitching, grimacing and shrugging of the shoulders. Common vocal tics include coughing, grunting or clearing the throat.
The intensity of a tic can vary. Occasionally, tics are forceful, which can be frightening and uncomfortable. Tics aren't voluntary movements and can't be consciously controlled, although some people say they feel a strong urge to move, linked to stress. Some people are able to suppress their tics briefly, but this is said to be like holding back a sneeze and tension rises until the tic finally escapes.
Tics are typically divided into several categories:
Transient tic disorders: As many as one in ten children will develop a transient or simple tic at some point during their school years. Such tics usually occur in just one muscle group and don't last more than a few months.
Transient motor tics may include blinking, squinting, snapping the fingers, jerking the head or wrinkling the nose. Occasionally, transient vocal tics such as gurgling or humming occur. The tic may even involve more bizarre behaviour, such as touching objects or licking. Transient tics may become more prominent when a child is tired or excited, but they don't lead to harm and don't typically require treatment.
Chronic tic disorders: Chronic tics persist, sometimes for years, but they change little in their character. While they don't usually need treatment, they can be disruptive, especially if a child realises others think them strange. Occasionally, a person has several tics and is said to have chronic multiple tics.
Tourette syndrome: Chronic tics are also a feature of Tourette syndrome. This neurological disorder causes multiple motor and vocal tics, which can be quite dramatic and frequently change in nature. Tourette syndrome usually begins in early childhood, varies in intensity and lasts more than a year.
Tourette can be particularly debilitating because the vocal tics can include the uncontrollable use of obscene language (known as coprolalia) and repetition of phrases the person hears others use (called echolalia).
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Treatment and recovery
Psychological support and counselling can be helpful for those with disruptive tics and cognitive behavioural therapy may help some people control their condition.
Medication such as Haloperidol, Pimozide, Fluphenazine and Clonidine can also be very effective in some severe cases.