Here we present a case of a 19-year-old male with a tic disorder who controls his most bothersome tic with a sensory trick.
The patient first developed tics when he was 10 years old. The first tic consisted of brief movements of his head to the left. The tics evolved to include sniffing, throat clearing, and blinking. The patient also developed significant attentional disturbances and subsequent difficulties in school. At the age of 12 years, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. Multiple medications were tried. Typically, his tics would initially respond well to the various medication trials, but he would always relapse within 5–6 weeks. His medication history includes guanfacine (1 mg twice a day), clonidine patch (0.1 mg patch daily), clonazepam (up to 1 mg at bedtime), risperidone (up to 0.5 mg three times a day), propranolol (up to 10 mg three times a day), and levetiracetam (up to 750 mg twice a day) for tics, as well as atomoxetine (up to 60 mg) for attentional deficits. From the ages of 12 to 18 years, he did very poorly in school, which was likely due to a combination of attention deficit disorder and the sedating side effects of his various medications. He had very mild compulsive tendencies, such as excessive counting, but this did not interfere with functioning. Towards the end of high school, he weaned himself off all his medications as none were particularly effective, and currently he is not taking any medications.
During high school, the neck-turning tic began to be pervasive. He discovered that if he applied gentle pressure to anywhere along his head circumference, the tics, and the accompanying urge to perform them, would be completely quelled. Touching his lower face was also effective, although less so. His sensory tricks included resting the back of his head against a wall, resting his chin on his hand, and wearing a bandana or hat. Unfortunately, his school did not allow headgear and this limited his ability to control his neck tic. Now that he is at university, he wears a baseball cap every day with much success in tic control. His other tics, such as sniffing and blinking, which are significantly less bothersome than his neck tics, are not responsive to sensory tricks. Video 1 demonstrates this phenomenon.
Here we have described a case report about highly successful sensory tricks for tic control and have demonstrated this phenomenon in Video 1. Sensory tricks are most frequently described as features of dystonia. In fact, the presence of a sensory trick is considered supporting evidence for the diagnosis of dystonia. However, the phenomenon of sensory tricks has also been reported for tics, and may be clinically underappreciated. In 1995, Wojcieszek and Lang reported that 15 of 45 patients surveyed with Tourette’s syndrome or chronic motor tics used a sensory trick to help control tics.1 Interestingly, most of the tics that responded to tricks were dystonic in nature. In our case, the patient’s tics were brief head-turning movements, reminiscent of torticollis, and therefore also fit the characterization of dystonic tics. Although this small study demonstrated that one-third of tic patients experience this phenomenon, it is not a feature that movement disorder physicians tend to ask about, despite the fact that this is a standard question when exploring the clinical features of dystonia. One implication of the observation that tics can be controlled with sensory tricks is that alteration in the electrical activity of the sensory cortex may modify, and perhaps suppress, tics. This possibility should not be surprising as other sensory phenomena are well described features of tics, such as the sensory urges that precede tic production and the relief felt after tic completion.
Modulation of sensory circuits, however, has not been explored as a treatment option for tics. This could potentially be accomplished via repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), a neurophysiological tool that can either excite or inhibit brain regions depending primarily on the frequency of stimulation. Various studies have been conducted using rTMS to modulate tics, but the focus has been on targeting brain areas associated with motor and not sensory function.2 It has been hypothesized by others3 that TMS could be used to simulate the sensory trick to relieve dystonia, and similar logic may apply to tic control.
1 Funding: None.
2 Financial Disclosures: None.
3 Conflict of Interests: The author reports no conflict of interest.
Wojcieszek, JM and Lang, AE (1995). Gestes antagonistes in the suppression of tics: “tricks for tics”. Mov Disorder 10: 226–228, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/mds.870100219
Bhidayasiri, R and Bronstein, JM (2005). Improvement of cervical dystonia: possible role of transcranial magnetic stimulation simulating sensory tricks effect. Med Hypotheses 64: 941–945, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2004.11.022 [PubMed]