Can Physical Exercise be Used to Treat Tourette Syndrome?

For the many parents of children and adolescents with persistent tic disorder and Tourette Syndrome (TS), as well as adults with TS, the quest for treatments to increase the quality of life and reduce the severity of tics is constant and ongoing. 

Treatments of TS Vary in Effectiveness

None of the prescription drugs currently approved for use eliminate tics completely but physicians may prescribe medications to lessen the intensity of severe or disruptive tics caused by TS. Unfortunately, the class of medications usually prescribed often has side effects including weight gain, stiff muscles, tiredness, restlessness, and social withdrawal. For many, especially parents raising children and teens with TS, the side effects can sometimes be seen as worse than the tics. 

Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics (CBIT) is one alternative to medication that continues to increase in popularity. CBIT is a therapy that teaches a person to become self-aware of their symptoms and triggers. Patients then develop an action plan, called a competing response, to interrupt the action when tics are about to happen. Because each person is unique as are tics themselves, CBIT is a very individualized treatment with varying results.

The Case for Physical Activity as a Treatment for Tics

Physical exercise and exertion are also being studied as avenues for reducing the intensity and frequency of tics. One reason for the attention on exercise is that it has been found to help people with ADHD, a common comorbidity of TS. ADHD and tic disorders are thought to involve the same areas of the brain. The UK based Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH) elaborated on this point of research in January 2022 when they reported on the growth in physical exercise as part of the management for children and young people with mental health problems. “There is a growing evidence base that shows physical exercise is associated with improvements in functioning for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), although studies are small, they are significant.” After seven studies in the UK with children, results were summarized to say that while tic severity and frequency improved with exercise in the short term, “the majority reported no difference in tic expression as a result of participation in physical activity”.

Interestingly, professional athletes are among the class of people successively coping with TS and even crediting their success in part to their TS. In 2014, ABC Sports interviewed  Tim Howard, one of the world’s best soccer goalies.  He became an American hero at the World Cup when he made a record 16 saves in a match against Belgium. Howard’s TS first emerged when he was about 10 years old. He told ABC that he doesn’t experience tics when the pressure is on and he is tending goal.  Howard said that he “believes his Tourette’s gives him an edge with abnormally rapid reflexes allowing him to move faster than his opponents.”

Learn more about Tim Howard and the work he is doing with NJCTS

Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin, who won gold at the 2000 summer Olympic games in Sydney, also suffers from Tourette’s. He told ABC: “The way that I have come to understand my Tourette’s is that there is an over-excitation of the nervous system. I can channel all that nervousness better than a majority of my competitors.” Both Ervin and Howard said that their tics returned when they were relaxed.

Another small study cited by the NIH showed positive results and will hopefully lead to more research and more useful information for parents and patients navigating life with TS. Similar to the studies in the UK, the researcher concluded that while more research is necessary, higher physical activity levels are associated with lower vocal tic severity. Additionally, the researcher reported that participants and their families found that physical activity improved other aspects of quality of life.

Learning the coping mechanisms of highly successful people with TS serves two purposes. It gives inspiration and hopes to frustrated patients and parents and introduces new tools for parents and patients to explore on their own. 

For more stories about people who have excelled in their fields while managing TS, go to https://blog.ongig.com/diversity-and-inclusion/40-famous-people-with-tourette-syndrome/.




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