Child Psychiatry Consult

New onset of tics


A tic is described by the DSM-5 as a sudden, rapid, recurrent, nonrhythmic movement or vocalization. Tics are a common occurrence in childhood and can range from mild to severe, transient to chronic, simple to complex. It is not uncommon for parents to ask pediatric care providers when and how to manage tics in children. Here, we present a case to illustrate just such an issue.

Case summary

Adam is an 8-year-old with a previous diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who is being seen for follow-up after being started on a stimulant 3 months ago because of declining performance in school and at home, despite adequate accommodations, parent education, and nonpharmacologic treatments. He has done well on a small dose of methylphenidate (0.5 mg/kg per day), but in the context of being asked about other symptoms, his mother, Mary, mentions that she has noticed that Adam is frequently clearing his throat. This began about 6 weeks ago after experiencing allergic rhinitis for almost a week. Since that time, Mary has noticed that he clears his throat as frequently as once every 5 minutes.

Dr. Robert R. Althoff

Dr. Robert R. Althoff

The behavior was reported to occur in the classroom, but not nearly with the frequency experienced at home. If asked to not clear his throat, Adam can suppress it. None of his classmates have said anything or appear to have noticed. His parents have never noticed any tics previously. There is a family history of ADHD in his father. There is no other family history of neurodevelopmental disorders, including no obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Tourette’s disorder, or other chronic tic disorders. There is nothing else of concern on physical or mental status examination. His mother has concerns that the stimulant medication may be inducing a tic and wonders about stopping it.

Case discussion

Adam has a mild simple vocal tic. The vast majority of tics that develop in childhood will not last the requisite 1 year required to make the diagnosis of a persistent (chronic) motor or vocal tic, nor will they occur with both vocal and motor tics over 1 year required to make the diagnosis of Tourette’s disorder. In the DSM-IV, tics lasting less than 1 year would have been given the diagnosis of transient tic disorder.

In the DSM-5, the diagnosis is now provisional tic disorder because there is no way to tell which tics will be transient and which will be persistent or chronic. Chronic tics occur with a prevalence of between 0.5% and 3%1, with a male predominance, and are more common in children with ADHD and OCD. In addition, children with chronic tic disorders often have higher incidence of learning problems and, perhaps, autism spectrum disorders. Simple motor and vocal tics (those involving a single muscle group) are more common than complex tics, in which coordinated movements are made. Despite the portrayal in the popular media, it is particularly rare to have complex tics that include copropraxia (an obscene gesture), coprolalia (an obscene movement), echolalia (repeating another’s words), or echopraxia (repeating another’s actions).

Tics tend to have their onset in early school age, with the highest prevalence and severity between the ages of 9 and 12 years.2 When present, tics tend to be somewhat suppressed when the child is in school or when the child is engaged in a task. Furthermore, most tics, even when chronic, do not lead to impairment. When impairment does occur, it is often the result of social problems from teasing by peers. Most tics wax and wane over time, but eventually resolve without intervention.

In the case of Adam, there is no clear reason to begin to treat immediately. If one wanted to follow his tics, there are several parent and clinic measures that are available. Taking a history of his case would include ensuring that there are no other predisposing causes and no other psychiatric comorbidities. Induction of tics by the initiation of a stimulant might be considered, although recent data suggest that stimulants are less likely to induce or worsen tics in the course of treatment for ADHD than previously thought.3,4 If concerned, however, alternative ADHD treatment such as alpha-2 agonist treatment could be considered. Education could be provided to the parents regarding the likelihood of resolution. Should the tics worsen in severity and/or become chronic, there are several behavioral interventions, including habit reversal training and the Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics, which could be considered as first line.

Medications could be considered if the tics are moderate to severe and behavioral interventions are not sufficient to reduce impairment. The only Food and Drug Administration–approved agents are haloperidol and pimozide, although there is ample support for other agents, and practitioners are most likely to use alternatives, given the side-effect profiles of these typical antipsychotics. Co-occurring symptoms should be considered when thinking about medication. Alpha-2 agonists appear to be most effective in the context of ADHD, while second-generation antipsychotics appear to be more useful if OCD is comorbid. In general, though, in cases like Adam’s, taking a watchful-waiting approach will most often lead to symptom resolution.

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