Symptoms of Tourette Syndrome include uncontrolled, sudden, repetitive muscle movements and motor/vocal tics. This genetic disorder affects one out of 160 children and can be difficult to treat. Because of this, patients and their families sometimes consider less-widely studied (but promising) alternative medicines such as medical marijuana to treat Tourette Syndrome. In Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and several other states, patients can now apply for a medical marijuana card if they want to try it as an alternative treatment for their Tourette Syndrome.
What is Tourette Syndrome?
A genetic disorder that affects the brain and nerves, Tourette Syndrome causes uncontrollable, sudden, repetitive muscle movements and vocalizations known as tics. These might include exaggerated eye blinking, grimacing, head jerking, shoulder shrugging, repeated throat clearing, sniffing, or humming. The exact cause of Tourette syndrome isn’t known, but it’s thought that it has to do with changes in the brain and problems with how nerve cells communicate. Research suggests that an upset in the balance of the brain’s neurotransmitters may play a role.
A common myth about Tourette that’s often depicted in pop culture is that people with the condition blurt out obscenities or struggle to curtail their cursing. Most Tourette patients actually do not excessively or uncontrollably use inappropriate language. Known as coprolalia, this particular feature of Tourette only affects about 1 in 10 people with the condition. Coprolalia is a complex tic that sufferers can’t control and may feel embarrassed by it.
Symptoms of Tourette typically begin in childhood between the ages of 5 and 9 years old. The tics usually get milder or go away entirely as patients get older. Until then, though, patients and their families often struggle with these symptoms.
Unfortunately, some children with Tourette Syndrome try to hold back their tics in public due to embarrassment. When a child spends excessive time concentrating on trying to control their tics, it can cause them to lose focus and make it harder for them to pay attention in school. Often, children with Tourette syndrome exhibit additional behavioral conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), learning disabilities, and anxiety.
How is Tourette Syndrome Typically Diagnosed and Treated?
Simply having a tic doesn’t mean that you or your child has Tourette syndrome. A child experiencing Tourette symptoms will be referred to a neurologist to make a diagnosis. A diagnosis of Tourette syndrome comes only after a child has had several different types of tics — specifically, multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic — for at least one year.
There isn’t a specific diagnostic test for Tourette Syndrome. The neurologist will look at family history, medical history, symptoms and may order imaging tests like magnetic resonance imaging tests (MRIs), computerized tomography (CT) scans, electroencephalograms (EEGs), or blood tests to rule out other conditions that might cause similar symptoms.
As for treatment, doctors may recommend neuroleptics for Tourette Syndrome. Neuroleptics are drugs that limit the activity of dopamine in the brain, as it’s thought that dopamine can increase tics. According to the Mayo Clinic, Fluphenazine, haloperidol (Haldol), risperidone (Risperdal) and pimozide (Orap) are a few neuroleptic medicines that are typically prescribed to help control tics in Tourette patients. Possible side effects of these drugs include weight gain and involuntary repetitive movements. Tetrabenazine (Xenazine) might also be recommended, although it can cause severe depression.
How Could Medical Marijuana Help?
It has been speculated by researchers that Tourette might be caused by a dysfunction in the endocannabinoid system in the brain. Medical marijuana that includes THC has been reported to reduce symptoms of Tourette Syndrome in some scientific studies, patient reports, and anecdotal case reports.
- A 1998 German study found high densities of cannabinoid receptors in the basal ganglia and hippocampus, indicating that cannabinoids possess a functional role in movement and behavior.
- A 2013 study in the journal Behavioural Neurology stated that THC should be recommended for the treatment of adult Tourette patients when first line treatments failed to improve the tics. In treatment-resistant adult patients, the study concluded, treatment with THC should be taken into consideration.
- A 2015 study reported that tics respond well to cannabis.
According to Leafly, these are a few strains patients have noted help in treating their Tourette Syndrome.
Interestingly, the Tourette Association of America (TAA) reports that there is insufficient data to suggest that cannabidiol (CBD), without the addition of THC, is an effective treatment for Tourette Syndrome.
The TAA further states publicly that they support increased research into Tourette Syndrome by increasing funding and access to medical marijuana. The TAA has funded 5 research grants in Canada, Israel and the U.S. on medical marijuana and related medicines that target cannabis pathways, but they also state that more research is needed. The TAA also supports the inclusion of Tourette Syndrome as an approved condition in states where medical marijuana is available to adults with other intractable and incurable conditions.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is partnering with the TAA to provide health education and training to healthcare providers, educators, and families about Tourette Syndrome. The CDC supports the Tourette Association of America in publicizing the Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics (CBIT), which is a behavioral treatment that helps many patients better manage their tic symptoms.
If you are a Tourette patient or caregiver to a child who has Tourette Syndrome and you want to consider cannabis to treat this condition, Duber Medical can help you qualify for your state medical marijuana card. Make an appointment today.
Author: Gabrielle Dion Visca
Gabrielle has been writing and editing professionally for the medical and wellness industries for more than 20 years. She’s held positions with The Journal of Pediatrics, Livestrong, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and Patient Pop. She currently writes articles about medical marijuana for Duber Medical, and is the founder of the Ohio cannabis journalism non-profit, MedicateOH.