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What's a Tic?

A tic is an uncontrolled sudden, repetitive movement or sound that can be hard to control. Tics involving involve movements are called motor tics. Tics involving sounds are called vocal ticsTics can be either simple or complex.

The type of tics a person has may change over time. How often tics happen also may change. Tics often come and go and can get worse when a person is stressed or anxious.

It's perfectly normal to worry that a tic may never go away. Fortunately, that's not usually the case. Most tics are temporary. They tend to not last more than 3 months at a time.

Motor Tics

Simple motor tics involve a single muscle group. Complex motor tics usually involve more than one muscle group and can even look like the person is doing the tic on purpose. Simple motor tics include:

  • nose wrinkling
  • head twitching
  • eye blinking
  • lip biting
  • facial grimacing
  • shoulder shrugging

Complex motor tics include:

  • kicking
  • skipping
  • jumping
  • mimicking movements by others
  • smelling objects

Vocal Tics

Simple vocal tics involve one simple sound. Complex vocal tics involve more meaningful speech (like words). Simple vocal tics include:

  • coughing
  • throat clearing
  • grunting
  • sniffing
  • barking
  • hissing

Complex vocal tics include:

  • repeating words and phrases
  • animal sounds
  • calling out
  • yelling

Types of Tic Disorders

There are several kinds of tic disorders:

  • provisional tic disorder — this is the most common type of tic disorder. With a provisional tic disorder, the tics have been happening for less than a year.
  • chronic (persistent) tic disorder — this is a less common tic disorder. With chronic (persistent) tic disorder, tics have been happening for more than a year. The tics may be motor or vocal, but not both.
  • Tourette syndrome — this is a much less common tic disorder. With Tourette syndrome, a person has multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic happening for more than a year.

What Do Doctors Do?

Tics can sometimes be diagnosed at a regular checkup after the doctor gets a full family history, a medical history, and a look at the symptoms. No specific test can diagnose tics, but sometimes doctors will run tests to rule out other conditions that might have symptoms similar to tics.

In certain cases, tics are bad enough to interfere with someone's daily life and medicine may be prescribed.

What Else Should I Know?

Many times, people with a tic can think that their tic is the worst one ever. Of course it isn't, but it's still a concern for many people with tics. And those worries can cause unnecessary feelings of embarrassment and actually make the tic worse.

Nobody wants to make tics worse, but is there any way to make them better? While you can't cure tics, you can take some easy steps to lessen their impact:

  • Don't focus on it. If you know you have a tic, forget about it. Concentrating on it just makes it worse.
  • Try to avoid stress-filled situations as much as you can — stress only makes tics worse.
  • Get enough sleep. Being tired can makes tics worse. So make sure to get a full night's rest!
  • Let it out! Holding back a tic can just turn it into a ticking bomb, waiting to explode. Have you ever felt a cough coming on and tried to avoid it? Didn't work out so well, did it? Chances are it was much worse. Tics are very similar.
  • A tic? What tic? If a friend of yours has a tic, don't call attention to it. Chances are your friend knows the tic is there. Pointing it out only makes the person think about it more.

Don't let a little tic dictate who you are or how you act. Learning to live with and not pay attention to the tic will make you stronger down the road.

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
Date Reviewed: Jun 5, 2020

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