Tourette syndrome or Tourette’s is characterized by sudden tics, movements or verbalizations that are involuntary. There are many common misconceptions about Tourette syndrome as it pertains to its origin, symptoms and treatment. Due to a lack of understanding, there are numerous myths surrounding Tourette’s. It is important to address and correct Tourette syndrome misconceptions to decrease confusion and prejudice.    

1. Myth: Everyone with Tourette’s blurts out obscenities.

FACT: Only a small percentage of people with Tourette syndrome blurt out obscenities.

Coprolalia is the extreme and uncontrolled use of curses, obscenities and offensive remarks. Despite common misperceptions, only 10–15% of people with Tourette syndrome experience coprolalia. Coprolalia is an intense vocal tic that can entail inappropriate or socially unacceptable comments or expressions in public. Individuals are unable to control their cursing, as it is involuntary, unintentional and not under their conscious control. People are often embarrassed and upset when outbursts occur and commonly try to cover them up. Tourette syndrome and swearing are commonly linked together, which is likely due to the fact that it is one of the most highlighted symptoms on television and movies. This portrayal has contributed to the incorrect stereotype.

2. Myth: Everyone who has tics also has Tourette syndrome.

FACT: Just because a person has tics does not mean that they also have Tourette syndrome.

You can have tics without having Tourette syndrome. Tic conditions occur widely on a spectrum, ranging from minor and temporary to more complex and permanent. Temporary tics can last for several weeks or months and may then resolve themselves, while more severe tics can be enduring, disabling and impact several areas of the body. Tourette syndrome is the most severe form of tic disorders. Less severe forms include persistent motor tic disorder, persistent vocal tic disorder and provisional tic disorder. Other syndromes and diseases that may cause tics include Huntington disease and cerebral palsy. Tics may result from head trauma injuries or certain types of medications.

3. Myth: People with Tourette’s can control their tics if they really want to.

FACT: Tics are involuntary and uncontrollable for someone with Tourette syndrome.

Controlling Tourette syndrome is impossible, as people cannot control urges on their own. Tics stem from a neurological issue involving altered brain functioning and changed brain structure, which makes tics completely involuntary. Some individuals with Tourette syndrome are able to control tics and twitches for brief periods, but this requires a significant amount of focus and concentration. The delaying and inhibiting of tics are temporary and fleeting. The only reliable way to control tics is through behavior therapies and medications.

4. Myth: Tourette’s is caused by an unhappy childhood.

FACT: Tourette syndrome is not brought on by an unhappy childhood.

Tourette syndrome causes are currently unknown, although it is believed that there is a hereditary and genetic component. Environmental factors, autoimmune issues and the prenatal environment are also hypothesized to contribute to the progression of the syndrome. While stress has the potential to worsen symptoms, it is never the originating cause. Despite the fact that what causes Tourette syndrome is still unspecified, an unhappy childhood is not one of the potential possibilities.

5. Myth: Tics only occur in children

FACT: Tics can occur in children, adolescents, adults and the elderly.

Tics can be present in all age groups and are not only linked to childhood. Tourette syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts the nervous system. Most symptoms first occur in childhood around the age of 7 and peak between the ages of 10 and 12. The worst symptoms usually occur before the age of 18. Symptoms present in childhood do have the potential to reduce or lessen in intensity with age, but many symptoms can remain the same and continue into adulthood. The vast majority of children with Tourette syndrome go on to develop into adults with the condition.

Approximately 1 in 100 people have tic disorders, including adults. Although rare, tics can start in adulthood and later in life. There are many types of tics in adults that are permanent and severe. Tourette syndrome in adults can range widely from milder to more serious. By adolescence and young adulthood, about 33% of individuals have no tics, less than 50% have mild tics and less than 25% have moderate to severe tics. Most medical practitioners that specialize in Tourette’s work with children and do not continue providing treatment to patients as they become older. This can result in an untreated and unaccounted part of the adult population, which may contribute to the misconception that tics can only occur in children.

6. Myth: People with Tourette’s can’t be athletes.

FACT: People with Tourette syndrome can become athletes and have successful careers.

Individuals with Tourette syndrome can develop skills, play sports and become athletes. Some individuals have even found that their tics lessen when they put intense focus into a task. People with Tourette’s can enjoy sports, whether they choose to play competitively or recreationally. Many athletes with Tourette syndrome have done extremely well in sports and have gone on to have successful professional careers. For example, Jim Eisenreich was a successful Major League baseball player who went to the World Series, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf played basketball for the NBA and Tim Howard was a soccer star that played in the World Cup tournament. All of these individuals had Tourette’s and were still able to perform as athletes successfully.

7. Myth: Tourette’s is extremely rare.

FACT: Tourette’s has a relatively high prevalence.

When considering how common Tourette syndrome is, it is important to note that it is much more prevalent than people believe it to be. The prevalence of Tourette syndrome was once believed to be relatively rare, but this is no longer accurate. It is estimated that about 1 in 160 children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the United States are diagnosed with Tourette’s, with a total of 300,000 children impacted.

It is believed that at least 50% of children with Tourette syndrome go undiagnosed, suggesting that the prevalence of Tourette syndrome is underreported. Tourette syndrome statistics show that the syndrome impacts about 6 in 1,000 individuals, including adults.  

8. Myth: All Tourette syndrome patients have anger management issues.

FACT: Individuals with Tourette’s may have angry outbursts, but do not always have anger management issues.

Another common misconception pertains to Tourette syndrome and anger. Individuals with Tourette’s can experience a phenomenon called “Rage Attacks,” which are characterized by sudden explosions of rage and anger. These abrupt and sudden outbursts occur in about 25% of children. These attacks are not attention seeking or goal-directed and instead are believed to be involuntary. The common association between Tourette syndrome and anger outbursts are another result of inaccurate media portrayal in television and movies.

9. Myth: If I can’t see the tics, they must be doing better.

FACT: When tics are lessened, it does not mean that Tourette syndrome is gone or that the condition has been resolved.

Individuals with Tourette syndrome can attempt to repress or hold back their tics, but this does not mean that their condition has resolved. The lessening of tics does not mean that a person is doing better or that they are instantaneously healed and treated.

10. Myth: People with Tourette syndrome can’t lead normal lives.

FACT: Individuals with Tourette syndrome can lead full and fulfilling lives.

Living with Tourette syndrome can be challenging, but it does not have to stop a person from living a happy, full life. Individuals can achieve success in school, friendships, relationships and careers despite having Tourette syndrome. Several celebrities including Dan Aykroyd and Michael Wolff have achieved success despite their Tourette syndrome diagnosis. Tic disorders are treatable and are responsive to treatment. Medication and therapies can help people decrease their tics to the point where they are hardly noticeable.