tourette syndrome

Can TikTok Trigger Tics? Doctors See Rise in Teen Girls Experiencing Them

Doctors are investigating whether there could be a social media connection behind a rise in teen girls experiencing tic-like symptoms during the pandemic

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Amy Dunn has been living with Tourette syndrome for most of her life. 

“I had several tics growing up and still to this day do,” said the Citrus County mom. “It’s been emotionally draining."

She says it started at age 6 with tics like throat-clearing and sniffling. However, she says her symptoms have progressed over the years and have become more disruptive to her daily life. 

“I also have leg jerks, arm jerks, hand jerks as well. And I will shake profusely, especially if I'm anxious,” Dunn said.

She says she’s also developed blurting things out, especially in stores. 

Since the pandemic began, doctors around the world have seen a dramatic rise in teen girls who are experiencing a sudden onset of tic-like behaviors and symptoms. 

The doctors have noticed many of them have something in common. Many of the teens have reported watching people on TikTok with tics.

“As doctors were talking to kids, getting to know what was going on and things we would usually ask in taking history, it kept coming up again and again. I saw this on TikTok,” Dr. Barbara Coffey said.

Dr. Coffey is the Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. She’s also on the medical advisory board for the Tourette Association of America

“These patients come in and often they do come to emergency departments with a major collapse. They fall to the floor,” Dr. Coffey explained. “It’s often the flailing. It’s often the collapse. Large, gross motor movements are made. Unlike tics, which tend to be much smaller muscle movements.”

On TikTok, many of the video creators do say they are trying to raise awareness about Tourette syndrome and tic disorders. 

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson told NBC 6, "We consult with experts who have cautioned that correlation does not mean causation. People living with Tourette syndrome use TikTok to express themselves authentically, find community, and fight stigma, and we continue our wholehearted commitment to supporting a safe and welcoming environment for our diverse community of viewers and creators."

Dr. Coffey says many of these teen girls may have what is called a functional neurological disorder or FND. 

“It is helpful to think that the brain and the mind are sort of disconnected at that very moment,” Dr. Coffey said.

FND is different than other tic disorders like Tourette syndrome, which typically starts at a young age and is much more common in young boys than girls. 

“A few eye blinks here. A couple of shoulder shrugs there. Maybe some throat clearing next. It’s a usually insidious and gradual onset,” Dr. Coffey said. “So that makes the adolescent girls with sudden, explosive onset a very different demographic.”

FND is a diagnosis Dunn got at the age of 15, long before TikTok was around. It came after her then-boyfriend tragically died. 

“I was outside in the backyard,” Dunn recalled. “Automatically, I fell to the ground, everything from my waist and below went numb ... They actually had to teach me how to rewalk again.”

“We really can’t say that there's a cause of FND from social media such as TikTok,” Dr. Coffey said. “At this point, we may only be able to think of a correlation.”

Dr. Coffey says more research needs to be done on FND and this recent rise. However, she does think the pandemic may have been a catalyst. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, studies show teens are experiencing a movement disorder brought on by stress and anxiety that's presumably compounded by the pandemic and more social media consumption.

“It's probable that these individuals who receive this diagnosis already have some underlying vulnerability for this brain-wise, neurologically," Dr. Coffey saif. We don't know what that is yet. I’m hoping that studies will come out.” 

Dr. Coffey says it’s important that parents understand that with treatment and intervention, kids do get better with time. She also says appropriate diagnosis is key. 

Dunn hopes there will be more awareness about these disorders, especially with FND. 

“I know that the doctors don’t know a whole lot about FND and I think it’s great that they’re really trying to figure things out,” Dunn said.

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