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Functional Movement Disorder: What Is It and Why Are Cases on the Rise?

Aug 31, 2021
Blog Functional Movement Disorder

Health care providers are seeing an interesting trend as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Functional movement disorder is on the rise in teenagers. The cause? Some experts say screen time habits may play a part, but more research is needed to determine the exact reason.

What is functional movement disorder?

People with functional movement disorder experience unusual, involuntary movements and/or sounds. Functional movement disorder is often confused with other movement disorders like tics or Tourette syndrome. Each condition has distinct differences, however, in signs and symptoms, the age at which symptoms first appear, how quickly they worsen and the long-term effects.

Functional Movement Disorder

Functional movement disorder typically comes on very quickly, usually during the teenage years. In fact, some teens or their parents can pinpoint the exact day and/or time of onset. 

These involuntary movements cannot be explained by an underlying medical or neurological issue. The movements are completely random and people with the disorder receive no warning before the movements happen. 

Functional movements are also suggestible, which means if someone with the condition sees another person complete a movement, they may mirror it. Additionally, the more they complete a movement, the more the movement may be repeated. The majority of people (80%) with functional movement disorder will see significant improvement with or without treatment. 

Tics

Tics affect 10 to 25% of kids at some point during their childhood and teenage years. There are motor and vocal tics. Motor tics can include eye rolls, forceful blinks, neck tilts and other movements. Vocal tics can include coughing, sneezing or snorting and other sounds.

Unlike functional movement disorder, for which there is no warning, most children experience a physical sensation like an itch, tingle or feeling of pressure before their tic(s) happen. Most tics fade over time.

Tourette Syndrome

Tourette syndrome typically appears in childhood and is diagnosed when a child has had at least one motor and one vocal tic for a year or longer. The cause is not known but is thought to have a genetic component and be related to environmental factors such as stress.

Children with Tourette syndrome are more likely to have conditions such as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), anxiety and/or depression. By the time kids with Tourette syndrome reach early adulthood, they do usually see an improvement in symptoms. Relaxation skills and habit reversal techniques have also been shown to improve tics. 

What does COVID-19 have to do with functional movement disorder?

Health care providers from around the globe think there are a few things that could be contributing to the uptick in functional movement disorder since the pandemic began:

  • Increased stress
  • Limited social interactions
  • Lack of routine
  • Less exercise
  • Increased screen time (especially social media displaying tics and/or functional movements)

Some medical professionals have even indicated that many of the teens they have diagnosed with functional movement disorder since the pandemic began could trace certain symptoms back to a specific video they watched online.

What can I do to keep my child healthy?

Practicing healthy habits like the following can help your child stay healthy physically and mentally:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Get enough sleep
  • Limit screen time

Learn more about these and other movement disorders here.  

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Mike Patrick, MD
Emergency Medicine; Host of PediaCast

Dr Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.