What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, one of the anxiety disorders, is a potentially disabling condition characterized by obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors. While most people at one time or another experience such thoughts or behaviors, an individual with OCD experiences obsessions and compulsions for more than an hour each day, in a way that interferes with his or her life.
How Common Is OCD?
Approximately 2.2 million American adults age 18 and older, or about 1.0 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have OCD.1,2 It occurs equally in men and women. The first symptoms of OCD often begin during childhood or adolescence; however, the median age of onset is 19.3
What Are Key Features and Symptoms of OCD
Obsessions are unwanted ideas or impulses that repeatedly well up in the mind of the person with OCD. Persistent fears that harm may come to self or a loved one, an unreasonable concern with becoming contaminated, an excessive need to do things correctly or perfectly, or an excessive concern with sin or blasphemy are common. Again and again, the individual experiences a disturbing thought, such as, "My hands may be contaminated; I must wash them"; "I may have left the stove on"; or "I am going to injure my child." These thoughts are intrusive, unpleasant, and produce a high degree of anxiety. Sometimes the obsessions are of a violent or a sexual nature, or concern illness.
In response to their obsessions, most people with OCD resort to repetitive behaviors called compulsions. The most common of these are washing and checking. Other compulsive behaviors include counting (often while performing another compulsive action such as hand washing), repeating, hoarding, and endlessly rearranging objects in an effort to keep them in precise alignment with each other. Mental problems, such as mentally repeating phrases, listmaking, or checking are also common. These behaviors generally are intended to ward off harm to the person with OCD or others. Some people with OCD have regimented rituals while others have rituals that are complex and changing. Performing rituals may give the person with OCD some relief from anxiety, but it is only temporary.
People with OCD show a range of insight into the senselessness of their obsessions. Often, especially when they are not actually having an obsession, they can recognize that their obsessions and compulsions are unrealistic. At other times they may be unsure about their fears or even believe strongly in their validity.
Most people with OCD struggle to banish their unwanted, obsessive thoughts and to prevent themselves from engaging in compulsive behaviors. Many are able to keep their obsessive-compulsive symptoms under control during the hours when they are at work or attending school. But over the months or years, resistance may weaken, and when this happens, OCD may become so severe that time-consuming rituals take over the sufferers' lives, making it impossible for them to continue activities outside the home.
OCD sufferers may attempt to hide their disorder rather than seek help. Often they are successful in concealing their obsessive-compulsive symptoms from friends and coworkers. An unfortunate consequence of this secrecy is that people with OCD may not receive professional help until years after the onset of their disease. By that time, they may have learned to work their lives - and their family members' lives - around the rituals.
What Is the Treatment for OCD?
OCD is generally treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both.
Psychotherapy. A type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavior therapy is especially useful for treating OCD. It teaches a person different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations that help him or her feel less anxious or fearful without having obsessive thoughts or acting compulsively.
One type of therapy called exposure and response prevention is especially helpful in reducing compulsive behaviors in OCD. In this approach, the patient deliberately and voluntarily confronts the feared object or idea, either directly or by imagination. At the same time the patient is strongly encouraged to refrain from ritualizing, with support and structure provided by the therapist, and possibly by others whom the patient recruits for assistance. For example, a compulsive hand washer may be encouraged to touch an object believed to be contaminated, and then urged to avoid washing for several hours until the anxiety provoked has greatly decreased. Treatment then proceeds on a step-by-step basis, guided by the patient's ability to tolerate the anxiety and control the rituals. As treatment progresses, most patients gradually experience less anxiety from the obsessive thoughts and are able to resist the compulsive urges.
Medication. Doctors also may prescribe medication to help treat OCD. The most commonly prescribed medications for OCD are anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants.
Anti-anxiety medications are powerful and there are different types. Many types begin working right away, but they generally should not be taken for long periods.
Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they are also particularly helpful for OCD, probably more so than anti-anxiety medications. They may take several weeks - 10 to 12 weeks for some - to start working. Some of these medications may cause side effects such as headache, nausea, or difficulty sleeping. These side effects are usually not a problem for most people, especially if the dose starts off low and is increased slowly over time. Talk to your doctor about any side effects you may have.
It's important to know that although antidepressants can be safe and effective for many people, they may be risky for some, especially children, teens, and young adults. A "black box" - the most serious type of warning that a prescription drug can have - has been added to the labels of antidepressant medications. These labels warn people that antidepressants may cause some people to have suicidal thoughts or make suicide attempts. Anyone taking antidepressants should be monitored closely, especially when they first start treatment with medications.
Some people with OCD do better with cognitive behavior therapy, especially exposure and response prevention. Others do better with medication. Still others do best with a combination of the two. Talk with your health care provider about the best treatment for you.
What Can Family Members Do to Help?
OCD affects not only the sufferer but the whole family. The family often has a difficult time accepting the fact that the person with OCD cannot stop the distressing behavior. Family members may show their anger and resentment, resulting in an increase in the OCD behavior. Or, to keep the peace, they may assist in the rituals or give constant reassurance.
Education about OCD is important for the family. Families can learn specific ways to encourage the person with OCD to adhere fully to behavior therapy and/or pharmacotherapy programs. Self-help books are often a good source of information. Some families seek the help of a family therapist who is trained in the field. Also, in the past few years, many families have joined one of the educational support groups that have been organized throughout the country.
- Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27.
- U.S. Census Bureau Population Estimates by Demographic Characteristics. Table 2: Annual Estimates of the Population by Selected Age Groups and Sex for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2004 (NC-EST2004-02) Source: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau Release Date: June 9, 2005. http://www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/
- Kessler RC, Berglund PA, Demler O, Jin R, Walters EE. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):593-602.
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1994.
- Foa EB and KoZak MJ. Obsessive-compulsive disorder: long-term outcome of psychological treatment. In Mavissakalian & Prien (Eds.), Long-term Treatments of Anxiety Disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1996, 285-309.
Adapted from NIH Publications 96-3755 and TR 10-4676
Reviewed by athealth on February 6, 2014.