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Why are so many European girls experiencing Tourette Syndrome symptoms during pandemic lockdowns?

covid tourette syndrome
Photo via Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: July 13, 2021

Lengthy lockdowns and stress surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have caused an extreme increase in Tourette Syndrome diagnoses and tics in teenage girls.

Tourette Syndrome is a neurological condition which impacts the nervous system, causing people to experience “tics.” Tics are repetitives motions, sounds, or twitches which can fall into two categories: motor tics and vocal tics. Motor tics involve movement of the body, while vocal tics are based on sounds. These tics can be simple and focused to a small area of the body or complex and widespread. 

Tics can be exacerbated by stress, which may help explain their rise during a global pandemic. Reports of young girls presenting with new tics they didn’t have before were published in British publications including the Sunday Times and the Telegraph in March 2021. A study was also published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

In the study, entitled “COVID-19 related increase in childhood tics and tic-like attacks,” researchers found that between the end of 2020 and January 2021 the referral rate for tic clinics effectively doubled. 

One of the subjects studied was a 14-year-old girl who began having “tic-like attacks,” including the complex movement of the neck and head along with hand movements, which resulted in her being sent home from school. The study noted her history of anxiety symptoms and traits that would place her on the autism spectrum—though she’d had no formal diagnosis—as well as a family history of Tourette Syndrome.

The tics were linked to predispositions in neurodivergence, such as ADHD and autism, as well as Tourette Syndrome in multiple cases. Interestingly, another potential factor was mentioned by researchers in the BMJ study: TikTok. The popular video-sharing app revealed that subjects including Tourette Syndrome gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers posit that the platform may be inadvertently “reinforcing and maintaining symptoms,” when young people see the tics of others and receive positive feedback on their own. 

Described as an “explosion” by the Telegraph, the conditions in lockdowns have left one practicioner, pediatric neurologist Alisdair Parker, extremely concerned about children displaying tics. Parker told the Telegraph “the most severe tic disorders” he has seen over the past two decades all presented during the pandemic. 

The increase is also occurring in New Zealand, and the pandemic has also caused problems for young American boys.

One 18-year-old from Australia, though, had a different take, especially when it came to remote learning. “It’s like sitting in a quiet exam room and trying to hold in a cough. Everybody’s concentrating, and you don’t want to be that person that disrupts it,” Zoe Valiukas told ABC.net, referring to her experiences of in-person learning and trying to control her Tourette syndrome. “Distance learning was good for me, because I could just mute my microphone and tic as much as I needed to.”

Safety concerns for loved ones during the pandemic, combined with a prolonged isolation, is enhancing tics among young people who already have predispositions to functional tics. The issue is currently disproportionately impacting young women — by a large margin — but the Times of London noted that reports of tics developed during the pandemic are also occurring in young boys. 

Tics can decrease over time as a source of stress dissipates, which may spell a hopeful future for those who have developed them during the pandemic. It is still unclear what long-term consequences the development of tic disorders may have on young adults and older children. 

Read more on children and the coronavirus:

Sources: Telegraph, Times of London, CDC, BMJ, Tourette.org


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