Transient Tic Disorder

What is Transient Tic Disorder?

Transient tic disorder is a condition characterized by uncontrollable motions or sounds made by the person afflicted, and these motions or sounds are most frequently deviations from anything the person might normally do. One very common example of transient tic disorder would be when a person blinks their eyes continuously and rapidly, without there being any physical cause for eye irritation.

It is known that as many as 25% of all children experience tics, but only about 10% of these cases are long lasting in nature and involve transient tic disorder. The disorder can affect people at any age, but children are by far the grouping most commonly afflicted by it, displaying pronounced physical or vocal tics repeatedly.

While there are some more common expressions of tics than others, everyone is affected differently by transient tic disorder, so the specific types of abnormal motions or sounds are likely to be different from person-to-person.

One of the most well-known tic disorders is called Tourette’s Syndrome, which is a condition in which both motions and sounds can be expressed abnormally by the same person, and in some cases at the same time. It is far more common for ordinary transient tic disorder to be expressed by either motions or sounds, but not generally together or at the same time.

Scientists and medical personnel are aware of two different types of tics, those being vocal tics and motor tics, both of which are short-duration behaviors which occur abruptly in the midst of otherwise normal behavior. In transient tic disorder, these behaviors occur numerous times, with the same behavior repeated over and over.

Those tics involving movements are classified as either simple or complex tics, with the simple motor tics most frequently including movements like eye blinking, jerking of the head, shrugging of the shoulders, or twitching of the nose. By contrast, the complex motor tics are comprised of a series of motions, always executed in the same sequence. Two examples of complex motor tics are when a person reaches out to grasp something or performs a kicking motion repeatedly.

Strictly speaking, these tics are usually not classified as involuntary, since afflicted people can actually suppress the motor or vocal tic for a period of time. However, continued suppression of the tic causes increasing discomfort, and this discomfort will continue to grow in the person until they finally surrender to the urge, and perform the tic. Thus, transient tic disorder is not considered a threat to overall health, but it can be extremely embarrassing in social settings and can become a source of great discomfort to a person due to its compulsive nature.

The reason this tic disorder is referred to as being ‘transient’ is that the condition persists for no more than a year, and if it does last longer, it is then classified as a ‘persistent tic’. In some medical references, transient tic disorder has been renamed as Provisional Tic Disorder.

Transient Tic Disorder symptoms

While the symptoms of transient tic disorder can be widespread in nature, affecting almost any part of the body, the character of involuntary movements or sounds can always be recognized by their repetition and deviation from a person’s normal behaviors.

Some of the most observable symptoms are sounds like grunts, groans, and repeated clearing of the throat. When the tic disorder is expressed in the form of movements, these can be observed as facial grimacing, repetitive and excessive blinking, twitching, shrugging, or jerking. When movements are of the complex variety, they are often observed as abrupt, uncontrollable motions involving the arms, legs, and other parts of the body.

People suffering from transient tic disorder have reported unusual sensations in the body prior to the onset of a tic episode, and these seem to serve as alerts that some form of spasm is imminent.

Whatever symptoms are expressed during an episode, sufferers are able to restrain themselves or suppress the tic for brief periods of time, although it generally takes a great deal of effort to accomplish this. When the afflicted person does finally give in to the urge, a powerful sense of relief then sweeps over them, and a return to normal behavior can be anticipated.

In the experience of many sufferers of transient tic disorder, experiences are often made more severe and long-lasting by conditions prevailing prior to the onset of an episode. These trigger conditions can include stress and anxiety, excessive fatigue or deprivation, extremes of temperature, and unusual levels of stimulation or excitement.

It must be remembered that the manifestation of the tics themselves is not sufficient to diagnose transient tic disorder, because these symptoms might well be associated with other conditions. For instance, a person who is repeatedly sniffling or twitching their nose might simply be afflicted by an allergic reaction, which has nothing to do with tic disorder.

For a person who is seriously affected by tics, the first thing a physician will do is perform a complete physical exam which includes a neurological test, along with an evaluation of the patient’s complete medical history. The purpose of all this is to rule out any other kind of medical condition which might be triggering the tics. In some cases, CAT scans and blood tests are also administered, so as to determine whether or not tics are an indication of some more serious condition, such as Huntington’s Disease.

In order to be classified as transient tic disorder, the symptoms exhibited by an afflicted person must meet the following criteria:

  • The person must have at least one vocal or motor tic which has persisted for less than a year
  • The initiation of the tics must have occurred prior to age 18
  • The observed symptoms cannot be attributable to medication, and cannot be a side effect of any drugs taken
  • The symptoms must not be associated with any other medical condition such as Huntington’s Disease or post-viral encephalitis
  • The sufferer must not be diagnosed as having Tourette’s Syndrome, or any other kind of motor or vocal tic disorder which is chronic in nature.

Causes of Transient Tic Disorder

The causes of transient disorder are not known at this time, although it is thought that a combination of factors may trigger the condition. There is a body of research which, although inconclusive, appears to indicate that tic disorders can be inherited from relatives who themselves experienced tics in their youth.

It is also known that certain genetic mutations can trigger Tourette’s Syndrome, which is a specific type of tic disorder. It is thought that some types of abnormalities in the brain can lead to transient tic disorder, and since these abnormalities generally trigger other conditions as well, it is not common to find that people who are afflicted by transient tic disorder also suffer from depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Current research is exploring the possibility that transient tic disorder is linked to the actions of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals which provide a medium for the transmission of signals to the individual cells of the body. Since tics are always either physically or vocally expressed, it seems logical that transmitters sending signals to the body cells responsible for movement and for sound could be somehow disrupted.

As yet, however, this research has failed to provide conclusive proof of the role played by neurotransmitters in transient tic disorder. Interestingly, the treatment of transient tic disorder does target the level of neurotransmitters in the body, so there does seem to be a correlation between the two.

Treatment of Transient Tic Disorder

In the vast majority of cases, transient tic disorder in children simply fades away of its own accord, with the afflicted person not requiring any formalized program of treatment. That being said, it’s also very important that those individuals in the immediate circle of friends and relatives for someone afflicted by transient tic disorder avoid calling any attention to symptoms when they appear.

This will generally exacerbate the problem and increase the severity of the symptoms, while also making the child feel a great deal more self-conscious. This can also have a tendency to degrade the child’s sense of self-worth and lead to some level of depression.

In situations where symptoms are fairly severe and have a big impact on a child at school or a young adult at work, treatment programs are sometimes initiated which are comprised of a combination of therapy and medication.

Since stress and anxiety are big contributors to the frequency and severity of tics, medications which act to relieve stress are often prescribed. The therapeutic portion of the treatment program will generally involve some kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, wherein the patient learns to avoid self-destructive tendencies, by managing their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It’s worth noting that neither therapy nor medication will completely subdue transient tic disorder and that at best it will only reduce the severity of any symptoms expressed.

As previously mentioned, one common approach to treatment is to prescribe one of the drugs which can lower the level of dopamine in your brain, because dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters that is thought to promote tics. Drugs which have proven useful in lowering the levels of dopamine are fluphenazine, haloperidol, and pimozide.

Another approach which has proven successful in reducing the symptoms of transient tic disorder is to prescribe antidepressants for the patient. The aim of this strategy is to manage the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, sadness, and anxiety, all of which can deepen the effects of transient tic disorder if left unchecked.

Prevention of Transient Tic Disorder

There is no known prevention for transient tic disorder, although as mentioned previously, most children who contract the disorder will generally see it disappear during their later teen years or early adulthood.

There is some evidence to suggest that extreme emotional stress by the mother during pregnancy may have an impact on triggering transient tic disorder. That same body of research points up the fact that pregnancies characterized by frequent severe nausea and vomiting also have a tendency to trigger tic disorder in a greater number of offspring than would a relatively uneventful pregnancy. While this may prove to be relatively impractical, it might therefore be helpful to minimize prenatal stress for the mother as a preventive kind of action.

Since many people afflicted by transient tic disorder have their episodes initiated by stress factors, and also have the severity of episodes deepened by anxiety or stress, there might be a limited value in attempting to maintain a low-stress environment for someone afflicted by the tic disorder. However, this too would only have a limited benefit, and it should be borne in mind that attempting to sterilize a child’s social environment of all stress could well do more harm than good in terms of his/her development.

Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2017
Last Updated:
September 12, 2017
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