I Keep Repeating a Word Out Loud Until My Mouth and Tongue Hurt

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Reader’s Question

I don’t know what’s up with me, but I just have this habit of repeating a word ALOUD until my mouth and my tongue hurt. I don’t know what’s going on. Is there a way to cure this?!

Psychologist’s Reply

Shorter questions seem the most complex for some reason. When you describe this behavior as a habit, that suggests it’s been around for a number of years. Your description also suggests that during the course of a conversation, you will become “stuck” on a word, at which point you continue to repeat the word aloud for many minutes. The neurological mechanism here might be called “perseveration”, or the purposeless repetition of a word or phrase (or behavior). This behavior can occur in several types of conditions. It might be:

Verbal Tic
Many people have verbal tics, a phrase that they interject into conversation that is rather meaningless. Phrases such as “you know”, “well…”, “ummmm”, “anyway”, “Oh my gosh”, etc. are common. These are actually habits of speech/conversation.
Vocal Tics
These are usually noises, throat clearing, grunts, mouth clicking, etc. that are related to the presence of Tourette’s Disorder. They increase under stress.
Complex Vocal Tics
These are also associated with Tourette’s Disorder and as you describe, often include repetition of words or phrases. Of interest, this is a neurological mechanism at work, so the specific word is selected without your control. Unlike a predictable Verbal Tic often found in certain cultures or geographic regions, a Complex Vocal Tic can become stuck on any word/phrase at any time. It surfaces unrelated to the environment, giving you the sense that the behavior is out of your control.
Seizure Disorder
Verbal episodes of being “stuck” on a phrase/word and continuing without the ability to stop it can also be related to a seizure disorder. Complex partial seizures can produce similar verbal behavior both with and without a loss of consciousness.
Stuttering
This is an interruption of the normal flow of speech due to sound and/or word repetitions. In stuttering, the frequency of the behavior increases with the demand and necessity to communicate, linking this behavior with social anxiety or apprehension. Stuttering is typically not found when singing or talking to your pets, for example.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
This behavior might also be a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a type of verbal-repetitive behavior.

With the limited description, I tend to think you’re looking at Stuttering or a Complex Vocal Tic related to a mild form of Tourette’s Disorder. I think you’re describing:

  • a behavior out of your control,
  • a behavior not part of your personality or normal conversation,
  • a behavior that continues until it gradually times out, and
  • a behavior that doesn’t make sense considering other aspects of your life.

I’d recommend a speech and neurological consultation. Prior to the consultation, research Stuttering, Tourette’s Disorder, and the other conditions I’ve mentioned. Ask yourself:

  • Do I have a history of head injury or seizure?
  • Do I have a history of ADHD, which is often linked to Tourette’s.
  • Have friends and family noticed other “tics” in my behavior or speech?
  • Do I wet the bed — a common adult symptom of seizures?
  • Does the behavior surface only in social interactions?

This behavior is very treatable, but an accurate diagnosis is very important. Once we know what causes the behavior, treatment can eliminate this behavior from your daily conversations.

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