Tic Disorders can co-occur with ADHD 8-15% of the time. In other words, children diagnosed with ADHD are at greater risk for developing tics than the general population. If you have a child with ADHD, know what to watch for. Tics can be either motor tics (involuntary muscle movements) or vocal tics often characterized by throat clearing, repetitive cough, or other involuntary noises. Motor tics frequently involve muscles around the face or neck area, but can occur anywhere. Vocal tics, particularly of the throat clearing/coughing type, tend to be initially mistaken as an allergy.
If your ADHD child does develop tics, don’t panic. Most of the time tics are benign and kids grow out of them even with no medical intervention. The peak age for symptoms of tics is approximately age 10 or 11 and then by adolescence usually the tics will begin to fade. Knowing that tics will generally improve on their own, how do you decide when to treat them? My simple answer – treat the tic if it’s bothersome to the individual and/or interfering with daily functioning. The decision should be a collaborative one among the patient, the patient’s family, and the treating physician.
Some of the medications we use to treat tics are actually blood pressure medications called clonidine and guanfacine. They work well to decrease the frequency and severity of tics. If you do decide to try these medicines, be patient. They take time to work and initially can cause some sedation, particularly in the first few weeks.
In children with combined ADHD and tics, prior studies have shown stimulant medications can exacerbate tics so the treatment may simply be to stop the stimulant. This is not to say that stimulant medications cause tics, in fact they don’t. Many patients with ADHD and co-existing tics are able to successfully take the stimulants. If however the stimulant medications do cause problematic side effects for your child, remember there are also non-stimluant medications for treating ADHD such as Strattera or Intuniv.
In summary, tics are fairly common with ADHD, are usually benign, and tend to improve by late adolescence even without treatment. Be able to recognize symptoms of motor and vocal tics in your ADHD child so you can talk to your doctor about treatment options.
Theresa Cerulli, M.D.