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Doctors see spike in teen girls developing tics after watching TikTok

Neurologists at Vanderbilt Health are sounding the alarm
Microsoft is in talks to buy social media app TikTok
Posted at 5:33 AM, Oct 26, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Neurologists at Vanderbilt Health sound the alarm about functional tic disorder, presenting mostly in female patients between 13 and 18 years old, three to four times more than in October 2020.

"We think that social media and platforms like TikTok could be a factor. It's complicated...Certainly many of these individuals with function disorders are already have a predisposition they're anxious, maybe socially, more socially isolated," explained Vanderbilt University Medical Center Neurology Assistant Professor & Division of Pediatric Neurology Pediatrics Assistant Professor Dr. David Isaacs.

He said the disorder, which is not only affecting females, was only identified in 2020 and may also be a product of the pandemic.

"Everyone's life has been so disrupted in different ways, especially children and adolescents, so there is more isolation, less ability to engage normally with their peers and their friends, more time online," said Isaacs.

The symptoms of functional tic disorder include flailing movements of the arms, self-injurious movements, spouting phrases, and other movements Isaacs described as "complex" and multi-step.

Functional tic disorder appears abruptly and severely unlike Tourette's syndrome with which Isaacs said patients are often misdiagnosed.

"In Tourette's, we often see tics start earlier in life in childhood before the age of 10, for example, and they usually are very simple tics. Initially, they become more complex over time. In contrast, these individuals with functional tic disorders have very complex, severe tics... from the onset," explained Isaacs, who said the medication and treatment plan is different for the two.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center Neurology Assistant Professor & Division of Pediatric Neurology Pediatrics Assistant Professor Dr. David Isaacs

"We have been telling our patients when we see individuals who have this diagnosis, you know, to really try to limit their exposure, you know, to avoid watching TikTok and social media platforms with tics, you know, where people are watching videos of tics," said Isaacs.

Research published in the Movement Disorders medical journal echoes what Vanderbilt neurologists are seeing. According to that research, during the pandemic, tic-related and Tourette's syndrome-related videos have been gaining popularity on TikTok among young females. Within a three-week period in March 2021, views of videos with the hashtags "tourette" and "tic" increased by 7% to a total of 5.8 billion views.

"A lot of the patients we've been seeing here, you know, they've already seen a number of doctors or providers and they're they're just wanting answers and obviously help," said Isaacs, "It's frightening for a lot of people because they're, you know, doing well and then suddenly have all this where many of them have to leave school or, you know, it's really disruptive."

He said it is important to note the tics are involuntary. "I think just being supportive that we think that a lot of this is being triggered by stress and so trying to, to not lay blame... Again, this is a very difficult thing for parents and kids alike."

Isaacs explained patients with functional tic disorder recover but each case is at a different speed.

"I've seen people come back to the clinic, you know, within a few months, and they're significantly improved already. Others we've been following...for over a year who are still experiencing symptoms," said Isaacs, "But in general, it is reversible."

The treatment plan includes counseling and therapy such as Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention.

"It's trying to learn body awareness, and they basically develop what's called competing responses so when you feel a tic about to start, can you do something to replace the tic that you control such that it gives patients more control over their tics?" explained Isaacs.

The research is still in its infancy and is being studied in communities around the world also seeing a spike in patients with functional tic disorder.

Isaccs said the team in his clinic at Vanderbilt study the disorder every day. "There's a lot emerging about this, but still a long, long way to go."