What are ‘tics’?

Tics are the movements and/or sounds someone with Tourette Syndrome (TS) carries out. Although everyone with Tourette Syndrome experiences tics, tics aren’t always due to Tourette Syndrome.

cdc.gov states that a Tourette diagnosis requires that a person has two motor tics, and at least one vocal tic. These tics must be present for more than one year.

Tics vary, a lot. They can vary in frequency, severity and how they look and sound.

It is also fascinating to know that tics don’t just vary from person to person. Tics can evolve over a persons lifetime.

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Medical definition of tics

WebMD provides a more descriptive definition of tics:

There are two types of tics -- motor tics and vocal tics. These short-lasting sudden movements (motor tics) or uttered sounds (vocal tics) occur suddenly during what is otherwise normal behavior. Tics are often repetitive, with numerous successive occurrences of the same action.

Those with TS may seem to have tics ‘out of the blue’. This is because there are little-to-no external signs of tics. The urge to tic often comes from a sensory urge or ‘itch’ within.

An animated family with an angry father shouting at their child with Tourette

Tics are often compared to an itch

This ‘itch’ is more mental than physical, but acts in the same way. The itch comes, it stays until you either wait for it to leave or scratch it.

Tics have also been described as hiccup-like. Some people describe a buildup of physical pressure inside the body.

A tic can be described as a voluntary action to relieve an involuntary sensory urge.

Some people however don’t feel a premonitory urge. A tic feels much more immediate and sudden.

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Tics can be simple or complex

Tics can occur in all kinds of ways. 

Sometimes, they can be unique to the environment. Let’s use a coffee shop as an example.

With simple tics, the urge may be to tap the cup on the table or move it side to side.

With complex tics, it may be to pick the drink up and throw it. It could be an urge to say a whole sentence out loud or to stand up and sit back down.

A view looking down at a busy coffee shop. Tics can vary depending on the environment, an example being tics involving moving a coffee cup, or standing up and sitting down.

The difference between simple and complex depends on how many muscle groups are being used during a tic.

Someone can have simple tics that are very repetitive.

Someone can have complex tics that are not so frequent

Tics can have an 'obsessional' quality

OCD is often a co-occuring condition.

Terms that may better describe behaviours combining both Tourette and OCD are Tourettic-OCD and ‘Just Right OCD’.

These tics have ‘obsessional‘ qualities.

Some people with OCD reverse ‘bad’ thoughts with a ‘good’ one. This could be saying a ‘nice’ thing out loud (similar to vocal tics) to register it as a ‘cancelling out’ of the bad thought.

Sometimes, a ‘phantom’ tic may be carried out.

If someone with Tourette has three blinking tics in a row, a fourth obsessional tic may be carried out if that person dislikes odd numbers.

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Tics are still misunderstood

The idea that everyone with Tourette swears is a myth.

Those that swear make up roughly 10% of the Tourette population. Because of this, it has been given a unique name- Coprolalia.

A family watch a TV with the words 'fact vs fiction' on it

Many sufferers are still accused of putting tics on, or not trying hard enough to hold them in. This is damaging and can really have an impact on mental health and well-being. 

Myths and misinformation persist, but awareness is improving.

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Diet and tiredness can affect tics

Sufferers and researchers alike have found that certain ingredients affect tics.

Foods containing sugars and caffeine can make tics worse, as well as some other more surprising ingredients.

Tics can worsen at certain times of the day, too.

A paragraph stating that tiredness can make tics worse, with a cartoon of a girl tired

Tiredness can lead to tics… tics can lead to sleep problems… that can lead to increased caffeine intake… affecting sleep. 

It can be a vicious cycle that is hard to get out of.

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Tourette doesn't reduce life expectancy

Tourette itself isn’t life threatening, nor does it reduce life expectancy.

However tics can lead to injuryTourette can also increase the likelihood of behavioural issues, anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

A better understanding of the condition can greatly improve quality of life.


Most people with the condition go on to live normal, fulfilled lives. 

Some find their strengths and creative side and go on to be incredibly successful. 

Billie Eilish is a great example. In the above video Billie talks about living with Tourette.

So many factors affect tics

Tics can be affected by factors such as stress, excitement, screen time, diet and even the weather.

The Tourette Syndrome homepage contains categories and articles to help you navigate all aspects of the condition.