Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder 

Updated: May 17, 2018
Author: William M Greenberg, MD; Chief Editor: David Bienenfeld, MD 

Overview

Practice Essentials

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by distressing, intrusive obsessive thoughts and/or repetitive compulsive physical or mental acts. Once believed to be rare, OCD was found to have a lifetime prevalence of 2.5% in the Epidemiological Catchment Area study.[1]

Signs and symptoms

Common obsessions include the following:

  • Contamination

  • Safety

  • Doubting one's memory or perception

  • Scrupulosity (need to do the right thing, fear of committing a transgression, often religious)

  • Need for order or symmetry

  • Unwanted, intrusive sexual/aggressive thoughts

Common compulsions include the following:

  • Cleaning/washing

  • Checking (eg, locks, stove, iron, safety of children)

  • Counting/repeating actions a certain number of times or until it "feels right"

  • Arranging objects

  • Touching/tapping objects

  • Hoarding

  • Confessing/seeking reassurance

  • List making

Many patients with OCD have other psychiatric comorbid disorders, and may exhibit any of the following:

  • Mood and anxiety disorders

  • Somatoform disorders, especially hypochondriasis and body dysmorphic disorder

  • Eating disorders

  • Impulse control disorders, especially kleptomania and trichotillomania

  • Attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder

  • Tic disorder

  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Skin findings in OCD patients may include the following:

  • Eczematous eruptions related to excessive washing

  • Hair loss related to trichotillomania or compulsive hair pulling

  • Excoriations related to neurodermatitis or compulsive skin picking

See Clinical Presentation for more detail.

Diagnosis

Once OCD is suspected, the following should be performed:

  • Define the range and severity of OCD symptoms; the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS)[2] is a good tool for this purpose

  • Complete Mental Status Examination; look for comorbid symptoms and disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5),[3] released in 2013, includes a new chapter for OCD and related disorders, including body dysmorphic disorder, hoarding disorder, trichotillomania, and excoriation disorder. Previously, OCD was grouped together with anxiety disorders.

The American Psychiatric Association defines OCD as the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both. Obsessions are defined by (1) and (2) as follows:

  1. Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and cause marked anxiety and distress

  2. The person attempts to suppress or ignore such thoughts, impulses, or images or to neutralize them with some other thought or action

Compulsions are defined by (1) and (2) as follows:

  1. Repetitive behaviors (eg, hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (eg, praying, counting, repeating words silently) in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly

  2. The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a way that could realistically neutralize or prevent whatever they are meant to address, or they are clearly excessive

See Workup for more detail.

Management

The mainstays of treatment of OCD are as follows:

  • Serotonergic antidepressant medications

  • Particular forms of behavior therapy (exposure and response prevention and some forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy [CBT])

  • Education and family interventions

  • Neurosurgery (anterior capsulotomy, or deep brain stimulation)[4] , in extremely refractory cases

First-line serotonergic antidepressants for OCD are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs; (fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, sertraline, paroxetine, citalopram, escitalopram) and clomipramine (Anafranil), a tricyclic antidepressant. SSRIs are generally preferred over clomipramine, as their adverse effect profiles are less prominent. Results of serotonergic antidepressant treatment are as follows:

  • Complete or near-complete remission of OCD symptoms is rare with monotherapy

  • Perhaps half of patients may experience symptom reductions of 30-50%

  • Many other patients fail to achieve even this degree of relief

Interventions for patients with treatment resistance include the following:

  • Change or increase in medication (eg, increase dose or prescribe a different SSRI or clomipramine)

  • More intensive CBT

Other interventions, which have not received US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for use in OCD, include the following:

  • Addition of a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (eg, desipramine) to an SSRI or a trial of venlafaxine

  • Addition of a typical or atypical antipsychotic (eg, haloperidol, olanzapine, risperidone), especially in patients with a history of tics

  • Augmentation with buspirone

  • Augmentation with ondansetron[5]

  • Addition of inositol

  • Sole or augmented use of selected glutamatergic agents (eg, riluzole, glycine, memantine, ketamine)[6, 7, 8, 9, 10]

  • Deep brain stimulation[11, 12] or cingulotomy neurosurgery[13] for severe and intractable casesb

See Treatment and Medication for more detail.

Background

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a relatively common, if not always recognized, chronic disorder that is often associated with significant distress and impairment in functioning. Due to stigma and lack of recognition, individuals with OCD often must wait many years before they receive a correct diagnosis and indicated treatment.

OCD has a wide range of potential severity. Many patients with OCD experience moderate symptoms. In severe presentations, this disorder is quite disabling and is appropriately characterized as an example of severe and persistent mental illness.

Previously identified by the American Psychiatric Assocation as an anxiety disorder, OCD is now a separate diagnosis with its own chapter, "Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders," in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). The condition is characterized by distressing, intrusive, obsessive thoughts and/or repetitive, compulsive actions (which may be physical or mental acts) that are clinically significant.

The new chapter groups OCD with related disorders, including body dysmorphic disorder, and conditions formerly found in the "impulse control disorder (ICD) not elsewhere classified" section, including trichotillomania.

DSM-5 criteria for obsession

Obsessions are defined in the DSM-5 by (1) and (2) as follows:[3]

  • Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance as intrusive and inappropriate, and that cause marked anxiety and distress.

  • The person attempts to suppress or ignore such thoughts, impulses, or images or to neutralize them with some other thought or action.

DSM-5 criteria for compulsion

Compulsions are defined by (1) and (2) as follows:

  • Repetitive behaviors (eg, hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (eg, praying, counting, repeating words silently) performed in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly. The behaviors are not a result of the direct physiologic effects of a substance or a general medical condition.

  • The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation. However, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a way that could realistically neutralize or prevent whatever they are meant to address or they are clearly excessive.

At some point during the course of the disorder, the person recognizes that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable (although this does not apply to children).

The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time consuming (take >1 hour per day), or significantly interfere with the person's normal routine, occupational or academic functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.

Obsessions and their related compulsions (the latter also referred to as rituals) often fall into 1 or more of several common categories, as seen in the table below.

Table. Categorizing Obsessions and Compulsions (Open Table in a new window)

Obsessions

Commonly Associated Compulsions

Fear of contamination

Washing, cleaning

Need for symmetry, precise arranging

Ordering, arranging, balancing, straightening until "just right"

Unwanted sexual or aggressive thoughts or images

Checking, praying, “undoing” actions, asking for reassurance

Doubts (eg, gas jets off, doors locked)

Repeated checking behaviors

Concerns about throwing away something valuable

Hoarding

Individuals often have obsessions and compulsions in several categories, and may have other obsessions (eg, scrupulosity, somatic obsessions, physical or mental repeating rituals). Often, the first pathologic obsession that an individual may experience is fear of contamination.

DSM-5 includes 2 new diagnoses in OCD: excoriation (skin-picking) disorder and hoarding disorder. Excoriation disorder is characterized by repetitive and compulsive picking of skin, resulting in tissue damage. Hoarding is a disorder in which sufferers have persistent difficulty discarding possessions regardless of their value.[14, 15]

OCD should not be confused with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). The diagnosis of OCPD refers to an individual who is preoccupied with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency; a pattern that typically emerges in early adulthood. They often display perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, and/or miserliness (for further details, see DSM-5).[3]

Despite the similarities in labels, relatively few individuals with OCD also meet the criteria for OCPD and vice versa.

Pathophysiology

The fact that obsessive-compulsive symptoms seem to often take very stereotypic forms has led some to hypothesize that the pathologic disturbance causing OCD may be disinhibiting and exaggerating some built-in behavioral potential that humans have that, under other ancestral circumstances, would have an adaptive function (eg, primate grooming rituals).

Etiology

The exact process that underlies the development OCD has not been established. Research and treatment trials suggest that abnormalities in serotonin (5-HT) neurotransmission in the brain are meaningfully involved in this disorder. This is strongly supported by the efficacy of serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) in the treatment of OCD.[16, 17]

Evidence also suggests abnormalities in dopaminergic transmission in at least some cases of OCD. In some cohorts, Tourette disorder (also known as Tourette syndrome) and multiple chronic tics genetically co-vary with OCD in an autosomal dominant pattern. OCD symptoms in this group of patients show a preferential response to a combination of serotonin specific reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and antipsychotics.[18]

Functional imaging studies in OCD have demonstrated some reproducible patterns of abnormality. Specifically, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning have shown increases in blood flow and metabolic activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, limbic structures, caudate, and thalamus, with a trend toward right-sided predominance. In some studies, these areas of overactivity have been shown to normalize following successful treatment with either SSRIs or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).[19]

These findings suggest the hypothesis that the symptoms of OCD are driven by impaired intracortical inhibition of specific orbitofrontal-subcortical circuitry that mediates strong emotions and the autonomic responses to those emotions. Cingulotomy, a neurosurgical intervention sometimes used for severe and treatment-resistant OCD, interrupts this circuit (see Treatment and Management).

Similar abnormalities of inhibition are observed in Tourette disorder, with a postulated abnormal modulation of basal ganglia activation.

Attention has also been focused on glutamatergic abnormalities and possible glutamatergic treatments for OCD.[20, 21] Although modulated by serotonin and other neurotransmitters, the synapses in the cortico-striato-thalamo-cortical circuits thought to be centrally involved in the pathology of OCD principally employ the neurotransmitters glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Genetic influence in OCD

Twin studies have supported strong heritability for OCD, with a genetic influence of 45-65% in studies in children and 27-47% in adults.[22] Monozygotic twins may be strikingly concordant for OCD (80-87%), compared with 47-50% concordance in dizygotic twins.[23] Several genetic studies have supported linkages to a variety of serotonergic, dopaminergic, and glutamatergic genes.[24, 25, 26, 27, 28]

Other genes putatively linked to OCD have included those coding for catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein (MOG), GABA-type B-receptor 1, and the mu opioid receptor, but these must be considered provisional associations at this time. In some cohorts, OCD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Tourette disorder/tic disorders co-vary in an autosomal dominant fashion with variable penetrance.

Infectious disease and OCD

Case reports have been published of OCD with and without tics arising in children and young adults following acute group A streptococcal infections. Fewer reports cite herpes simplex virus as the apparent precipitating infectious event.

It has been hypothesized that these infections trigger a CNS autoimmune response that results in neuropsychiatric symptoms (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections [PANDAS]). A number of the poststreptococcal cases have reportedly improved following treatment with antibiotics.

Other neurologic conditions

Rare reports exist of OCD presenting as a manifestation of neurologic insults, such as brain trauma, stimulant abuse, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Stress and OCD

OCD symptoms can worsen with stress; however, stress does not appear to be an etiologic factor.

Parenting and OCD

As previously mentioned, parenting style or upbringing does not appear to be a causative factor in OCD.

Epidemiology

Incidence of OCD in the United States

Once believed to be rare, OCD was found to have a lifetime prevalence of 2.5% in the Epidemiological Catchment Area study.[1] Current estimates of lifetime prevalence are generally in the range of 1.7-4%. Discovery of effective treatments and education of patients and health care providers have significantly increased the identification of individuals with OCD. The incidence of OCD is higher in dermatology patients and cosmetic surgery patients.

Race-, age-, and sex-related demographics

OCD appears to have a similar prevalence in different races and ethnicities, although specific pathologic preoccupations may vary with culture and religion (eg, concerns about blaspheming are more common in religious Catholics and Orthodox Jews).

The overall prevalence of OCD is equal in males and females, although the disorder more commonly presents in males in childhood or adolescence and tends to present in females in their twenties. Childhood-onset OCD is more common in males. Males are more likely to have a comorbid tic disorder.

It is not uncommon for women to experience the onset of OCD during a pregnancy, although those who already have OCD will not necessarily experience worsening of their symptoms during pregnancy.

Women commonly experience worsening of their OCD symptoms during the premenstrual time of their periods. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should collaborate with their physicians in making decisions about starting or continuing OCD medications.Age preference in OCD

Symptoms of OCD usually begin in individuals aged 10-24 years.

Prognosis

OCD is a chronic disorder with a wide range of potential severities. Without treatment, symptoms may wax and wane in intensity, but they rarely remit spontaneously.

Overall, close to 70% of patients entering treatment experience a significant improvement in their symptoms. However, OCD remains a chronic illness, with symptoms that may wax and wane during the life of the patient.

Roughly 15% of patients can show a progressive worsening of symptoms or deterioration in functioning over time.

Approximately 5% of patients have a complete remission of symptoms between episodes of exacerbation.

Pharmacologic treatment is often prescribed on a continuing basis; if a successfully treated individual discontinues his/her medication regimen, relapse is not uncommon. However, patients who successfully complete a course of CBT (perhaps as few as 12-20 sessions) may experience enduring relief even after the treatment, although some evidence shows that having CBT continue in some extended but less frequent fashion may further decrease the risk of relapse.

A certain percentage of patients may have disabling, treatment-resistant symptoms. These patients may require multiple medication trials and/or referral to a research center. A small subgroup of these patients may be candidates for neurosurgical intervention.

Patient Education

Education about the nature and treatment of OCD is essential. As with many psychiatric disorders, patients and their families often have misconceptions about the illness and its management. Information should be provided about the neuropsychiatric source of the symptoms, as opposed to having families unnecessarily blame themselves for causing the disorder.

A helpful book on OCD, written for the general public, is Dr Judith Rapoport's The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing,[29] which discusses the recognition of OCD in individuals and the identification of effective treatments for the disease.

Patients and their families should be provided with information on support groups and should have opportunities to discuss the impact the illness has had on their self-experience and on their relationships.

The Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation is a self-help and family organization founded in 1986 that offers information and resources regarding OCD and related disorders (including contact information for various types of affiliated support groups, contact information listing psychiatrists and therapists who are experienced in the treatment of OCD, research opportunities, and book reviews).

Some other organizations offer more specialized resources, (eg, the San Francisco Bay Area Internet Guide for Extreme Hoarding Behavior, the Madison Institute of Medicine's Obsessive Compulsive Information Center, which provides information and a monthly newsletter for individuals with OCD symptoms of scrupulosity about religious/moral issues).

A more complete listing of OCD resources appears as an appendix in the APA Practice Guideline for OCD.[30]

Several self-help books are also available, including Dr Edna Foa and Dr Reid Wilson's book,[31] which can add CBT-style self-treatment to the educational experience they provide.

Useful Web sites include the following:

  • The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, OCD

  • The Mayo Clinic, Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • WebMD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

 

Presentation

History

OCD is diagnosed primarily by presentation and history. The age of onset and any history of tics (either current or past) should be established.

Elements that are covered when obtaining a patient’s history should also include details relating to the nature and severity of symptoms.[32]

Questions regarding the nature and severity of obsessive symptoms

Have you ever been bothered by thoughts that do not make any sense and keep coming back to you even when you try not to have them?

When you had these thoughts, did you try to get them out of your head? What would you try to do?

Where do you think these thoughts were coming from?

Questions regarding the nature and severity of compulsive symptoms

Has there ever been anything that you had to do over and over again and could not resist doing, such as repeatedly washing your hands, counting up to a certain number, or checking something several times to make sure you had done it right?

What behavior did you have to do?

Why did you have to do the repetitive behavior?

How many times would you do it and how long would it take?

Did these thoughts or actions take more time than you think makes sense?

What effect did they have on your life?

Psychiatric review of systems and comorbidities

Individuals with OCD frequently have other psychiatric comorbid disorders, prominently including major depressive disorder, alcohol and/or substance use disorders, other anxiety disorders, impulse control disorders (eg, trichotillomania, skin-picking), and Tourette and tic disorders. (Perhaps 40% of individuals with Tourette disorder will have OCD). Therefore, in taking a psychiatric history, the focus should be on identifying such comorbidities, seeking to elicit the following:

  • Mood and anxiety symptoms

  • Somatoform disorders, especially hypochondriasis and body dysmorphic disorder

  • Eating disorders

  • Impulse control disorders, especially kleptomania and trichotillomania

  • ADHD

Childhood-onset OCD may have a higher rate of comorbidity with Tourette disorder and ADHD.

The co-occurrence of schizophrenia and OCD is problematic for a variety of reasons. Not infrequently, individuals with schizophrenia do seem to have significant OC symptoms (sometimes, ironically, caused or exacerbated by the use of the very effective antipsychotic clozapine, whereas adjunctive antipsychotics may lessen treatment-resistant OC symptoms in those who do not have schizophrenia).

When OC symptoms are present in someone who has schizophrenia, they may meet criteria for a diagnosis of OCD, but such patients often respond poorly to the usual OCD treatments, and perhaps OCD in schizophrenia has a different pathophysiology.

Consider the following:

  • Family history of OCD, Tourette disorder, tics, ADHD, and other psychiatric diagnoses

  • Current or past substance abuse or dependence

  • Antecedent infections, especially streptococcal and herpetic infection

Common obsessions include the following:

  • Contamination

  • Safety

  • Doubting one's memory or perception

  • Scrupulosity (need to do the right thing, fear of committing a transgression, often religious)

  • Need for order or symmetry

  • Unwanted, intrusive sexual/aggressive thought

Common compulsions include the following:

  • Cleaning/washing

  • Checking (checking locks, stove, iron, safety of children)

  • Counting/repeating actions a certain number of times or until it "feels right"

  • Arranging objects

  • Touching/tapping objects

  • Hoarding

  • Confessing/seeking reassurance

  • List making

Interpersonal relationships

OCD symptoms can interact negatively with interpersonal relationships, and families can become involved with the illness in a counterproductive way. For example, a patient with severe doubting obsessions may constantly ask reassurance for irrational fears from family members or significant others; constantly providing this can inhibit the patient from making attempts to work on their behavioral disturbances).

Physical Examination

Skin findings in OCD may include the following:

  • Eczematous eruptions related to excessive washing

  • Hair loss related to trichotillomania or compulsive hair pulling

  • Excoriations related to neurodermatitis or compulsive skin picking

 

DDx

Diagnostic Considerations

The most common medical pitfall in the treatment of OCD is a failure to make the diagnosis. Clinicians should be familiar with the diagnostic criteria and consider OCD in their differential when evaluating tics, mood and anxiety disorders, or other compulsive behaviors, such as trichotillomania or neurodermatitis.

Another common pitfall is the failure to identify the comorbid diagnoses frequently encountered in patients with OCD. These can include the following:

  • Major depressive disorder (30-70%)

  • Panic disorder (14%, 35% lifetime incidence)

  • Body dysmorphic disorder (14.5%)

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (20%)

  • Social phobia and simple phobia (24%)

  • ADHD

  • Tourette syndrome (5-7%)

  • Other tic disorders (20-30%)

  • Trichotillomania

  • Neurodermatitis

  • Idiopathic torticollis

  • Substance abuse

  • Eating disorders

Identification of these diagnoses guides treatment interventions and identifies patients who are at higher risk for suicide or self-harm. Not surprisingly, patients with OCD have a significant risk for suicide, which increases with the severity of symptoms and the number of concurrent psychiatric diagnoses.

Persons with OCD often do not seek treatment. Many individuals with OCD delay for years before obtaining an evaluation for obsessive-compulsive (OC) symptoms. Patients with OCD often feel shame regarding their symptoms and put great effort into concealing them from family, friends, and health care providers.

 

Workup

Approach Considerations

Imaging studies are normally considered research tools in the study of OCD, rather than diagnostic modalities for patients with the condition. However, tests for the assessment of symptom range and severity, as well as patient mental status, are valuable aids in the diagnosis and evaluation of OCD.

Imaging Studies

Functional MRI and PET scanning have shown increases in blood flow and metabolic activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, limbic structures, caudate, and thalamus, with a trend toward right-sided predominance.

In some studies, these areas of overactivity have been shown to normalize following successful treatment with either SSRIs or CBT.[19] These imaging modalities, while of value for research, are not indicated for normal workups.

Other Evaluations

Once the diagnosis is suspected, the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS)[2] is an important tool in defining the range and severity of symptoms and monitoring the response to treatment. The Y-BOCS consists of 10 items, including 5 for obsessions and 5 for compulsions, each of which is scored 0-4 (total score = 0-40). For obsessions and compulsions, these items rate time spent, interference with functioning, distress, resistance, and control.

In addition to use of the Y-BOCS, a complete Mental Status Examination should be performed. The patient should be evaluated for orientation, memory, disturbances of mood and affect, presence of hallucinations, delusions, suicidal and homicidal risk, and judgment (including whether insight into the irrational nature of their symptoms is still present).

Evaluate all patients with OCD for the presence of Tourette disorder or other tic disorders, as these comorbid diagnoses may influence treatment strategy. The findings on neurologic and cognitive examination should otherwise be normal. Focal neurologic signs or evidence of cognitive impairment should prompt evaluation for other diagnoses.

 

Treatment

Approach Considerations

OCD is a chronic illness that usually can be treated in an outpatient setting. The mainstays of treatment of OCD include the use of serotoninergic antidepressant medications, particular forms of behavior therapy (exposure and response prevention and some forms of CBT), education and family interventions, and, in extremely refractory cases, neurosurgery.

Patients who have achieved remission of symptoms with behavior therapy alone may never require medication and may instead need only to return to therapy if they have an exacerbation of their illness. Also, a subset of patients has been treated with a combined approach; these patients can discontinue medication, maintaining a remission with behavioral interventions alone. However, many patients require ongoing medication to prevent relapse.

Consider hospitalization for a patient with OCD if a suicide risk exists or if the individual’s symptoms are sufficiently severe to impair the patient's ability to care for himself/herself safely at home. If inpatient care is necessary, admitting the patient to a psychiatric unit whose staff is familiar with OCD and behavioral therapy is preferable.

Pharmacotherapy

First-line pharmacologic treatments consist of 5-HT reuptake inhibitors, such as the SSRIs (fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, sertraline, paroxetine, citalopram, escitalopram), and clomipramine (Anafranil), a tricyclic antidepressant [TCA] with 5-HT and NE reuptake inhibition. Possible alternatives include venlafaxine, a serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI). All of these are commonly used to treat OCD, although not all have received an indication from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this disorder.

Unlike in the case of major depression, complete or near-complete remission of OCD symptoms is rare with only serotonergic antidepressant treatment. More typically, perhaps half of patients may experience symptom reductions of 30-50%, as measured by the Y-BOCS, with many other patients failing to achieve even this degree of relief.

Doses above those needed for treatment of depression may be more effective for some patients. A therapeutic dose for 6-10 weeks may be required to observe a clinical response. Response tends to be slow and continue for at least 12 weeks (the common duration of OCD pharmacologic clinical trials), unlike the use of these same antidepressants in the treatment of major depressive episodes, where responses are more often seen somewhat earlier.

Several treatment studies suggest a possible role for norepinephrine (NE) in cases of OCD. A subset of patients reportedly shows greater clinical improvement with a combination of 5-HT and NE reuptake inhibition as compared with treatment with SSRIs alone. These have included patients treated with clomipramine and patients whose SSRI treatment was augmented with an NE reuptake inhibitor, such as desipramine. (See Treatment-Resistance Strategies.)

Preclinical studies and several case reports and small clinical trials have provided some preliminary support for the therapeutic use of specific glutamatergic agents.[6, 7] However, these agents (eg, memantine, N -acetylcysteine, riluzole, topiramate, glycine) have varied glutamatergic and other pharmacologic effects, so if they are demonstrated to be effective, clarifying any therapeutic mechanism of action will be important.

The first double-blind, placebo-controlled trial conducted by Berlin et al suggests topiramate augmentation for treatment-resistant OCD may be beneficial for compulsions but not obsessions.[33] The modification of glutamatergic function may be partly responsible for the improved response in compulsions seen with topiramate.

Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy is a first-line treatment that should be undertaken with a psychotherapist who has specific training and experience in such treatment (most commonly a behaviorally trained psychologist). Some patients will not undertake this therapy, with perhaps 25% rejecting it and 25% dropping out of behavioral therapy, but it should definitely be encouraged if a competent behavioral therapist is available.

Exposure and response (or ritual) prevention (ERP) is the important and specific core element in behavior therapy for OCD. The patient rank orders OCD situations he or she perceives as threatening, and then the patient is systematically exposed to symptom triggers of gradually increasing intensity, while the individual is to suppress his or her usual ritualized response. This is generally challenging and often quite distressing for the patient, but when effectively done, it promotes unlearning of the strong link that has existed between having an urge and giving into the urge.

When a patient does not respond in the face of a potent trigger, extinction of the response can take place. The patient’s significant others should be involved when possible, and they may have to be willing to change their responses to the patient (eg, not provide requested reassurance to irrational doubts).

Simpson et al reported on a multimodal residential treatment program that integrated ERP treatment for OCD with ERP treatment that targeted eating pathology. Patients also received a supervised eating plan, medication management, and social support. The results were significant decreases in OCD severity, eating disorder severity, and depression in the 56 patients with both disorders. Greater improvement was seen in patients with bulimia nervosa than in those with anorexia nervosa.[34]

ERP is now usually administered as part of a broader program of CBT specifically designed for OCD. Other elements of CBT that are used include identifying and challenging the cognitive distortions of OCD symptoms (eg, intolerance of uncertainty, black-and-white thinking, focusing on unlikely extreme possibilities instead of viewing the future in a balanced manner, ascribing overimportance to thoughts, excessive concern about the importance of one's thoughts, inflated sense of responsibility). After making the patient aware of his or her irrational thoughts, the therapist works to have the patient counter them with more rational thoughts and do cost/benefit analyses regarding performing his or her rituals.

Meditation and relaxation techniques may be useful, but not during active ERP, as the effectiveness of these exercises requires that the patient experience a significant level of discomfort and then not respond with his or her characteristic rituals. A patient may benefit from a self-help book in conducting ERP (eg, Foa and Reid, 2001[31] ), and workbooks are available for CBT as well. When recommending such a book, the treating physician should be familiar with its content.

A related approach, described by Dr. Jonathan Grayson, focuses on getting the patient to accept living with uncertainty as it relates to his or her obsessional ideas, and to prepare an individualized script to reinforce this attitude.[35]

Psychodynamic psychotherapy alone has generally not been found to be helpful in ameliorating OCD symptoms. It may, however, be useful in working on a patient's resistance to accepting recommended treatments or in helping the patient to appreciate the interpersonal effects that his or her OCD symptoms are having on others.[30]

Treatment-Resistance Strategies

Strategies should always include an assessment of complicating diagnoses, medication compliance, drug dose, and duration of therapy.

The presence of a comorbid diagnosis that has not been addressed, such as depression or panic disorder, can interfere with clinical recovery, and identification may guide the choice of interventions. Targeted interventions might include, for example, lithium or antipsychotic augmentation or ECT for depression.

Interventions for patients with treatment resistance include the following:

  • Change or increase in medication (eg, increase dose or prescribe different SSRI or clomipramine)

  • More intensive CBT

Other interventions, which have not received an FDA indication for OCD include the following:

  • Addition of an NE reuptake inhibitor, such as desipramine, to an SSRI, or a trial of venlafaxine

  • Addition of a typical or atypical antipsychotic, especially in patients with a history of tics

  • Augmentation with buspirone

  • Addition of inositol

  • Sole or augmented use of selected glutamatergic agents[6, 7]

  • Deep brain stimulation[11, 12] or cingulotomy neurosurgery[13] for severe and intractable cases (see Surgical Care)

Some clinicians feel that individuals with comorbid Tourette disorder or with hoarding as their principal OCD symptom may be more likely to be treatment resistant, although there is significant variation in treatment response, regardless of the particular presenting symptomatology.

Surgical Care

Neurosurgical treatment of OCD is performed at a limited number of centers and is reserved for patients with severe and refractory symptoms. The most common small series use a specific small lesion (eg, cingulotomy) or deep brain stimulation. Current clinical trials are also exploring the application of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a noninvasive treatment, for OCD.

One surgical technique involves the stereotactic placement of bilateral lesions in the anterior cingulate cortex. A case series of 18 patients showed a 28% response rate, with an additional 17% showing a partial response. No significant adverse neurologic or cognitive sequelae were noted.

A deep brain stimulation technique consists of implanting a device to electrically stimulate the subthalamic nucleus. A crossover study in 17 patients with severe, refractory OCD in which patients received 3 months of active stimulation and 3 months of sham stimulation in randomized order, found that there was significantly more improvement during the active stimulation periods. However, serious adverse events were substantial and included intracerebral hemorrhage and infection.[12]

In February 2009, the FDA approved the use of Reclaim Deep Brain Stimulation Therapy for individuals with chronic, severe OCD. This device is an implanted medical device that is designed to target a region called the ventral capsule/ventral striatum, which is in the anterior limb of the internal capsule of the brain.

The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation can provide a list of centers with experience in neurosurgical OCD treatment.

Consultations

While treatment approaches for OCD are now well described in the literature, many clinicians remain unfamiliar with the features and management of this disorder. Consultation should be sought if the treating physician is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the diagnosis, or if they feel they have exhausted the interventions with which they feel comfortable.

Consultations should be sought if the clinician is not experienced in treating patients with OCD with cognitive-behavioral therapy, including exposure and ritual prevention, if the patient might possibly cooperate with this treatment. For extreme, unremitting cases, consultation may be sought for neurosurgical interventions.

Long-Term Monitoring

OCD is a disorder that may involve remissions and relapses, but it usually does not entirely remit without definitive behavioral therapy. Patients in continuing treatment should be monitored for the presence or worsening of comorbid disorders, which may include substance use disorders and major depression, and any risk of suicidal ideation or behavior.

 

Medication

Medication Summary

Only antidepressants that potently inhibit presynaptic reuptake of serotonin appear to be effective in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Clomipramine (Anafranil) is the only tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) with this quality. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are also effective. SSRIs have the advantages of ease of dosing and low toxicity in overdose. Available SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), and sertraline (Zoloft).

SSRIs or clomipramine should be advanced as tolerated to a therapeutic dose. Clinical response may take 6-10 weeks to become apparent. The clinician should review adequacy of dose, duration of therapy, and compliance before deciding that a medication is ineffective.

SSRIs are generally preferred over clomipramine in treating OCD. The adverse effect profiles of SSRIs are less prominent, so improved compliance is promoted. SSRIs do not have the cardiac arrhythmia risk associated with TCAs; however, citalopram causes dose-dependent QT prolongation.[36, 37] Arrhythmia risk is especially pertinent in overdose, and suicide risk must always be considered when treating a child or adolescent with mood disorder.

Antipsychotics, such as haloperidol, olanzapine, and risperidone, have been used with some success in augmenting SSRIs in patients with OCD, particularly in patients with comorbid Tourette disorder or other tic disorders.[18]

A Cochrane review found some evidence of efficacy for quetiapine or risperidone as a general augmentation strategy (not specifically for those with comorbid tics).[38] However, heterogeneity was noted in doses used and in response, and the number of subjects in these studies was generally small

The dual serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor antidepressants (SNRIs) venlafaxine (Effexor) and duloxetine (Cymbalta) may also have efficacy in OCD, and they have safety and tolerability profiles comparable to those of the SSRIs. However, neither has yet been FDA-approved specifically for treatment of OCD.

Complications of pharmacologic treatment

Physicians are advised to be aware of the following information and to use appropriate caution when considering treatment with SSRIs in the pediatric population.

In December 2003, the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued an advisory that most SSRIs are not suitable for use by persons younger than 18 years for treatment of "depressive illness." After review, this agency decided that the risks to pediatric patients outweighed the benefits of treatment with SSRIs, except fluoxetine (Prozac), which appeared to have a positive risk-benefit ratio in the treatment of depressive illness in patients younger than 18 years.

In October 2003, the FDA issued a public health advisory regarding reports of suicidality in pediatric patients being treated with antidepressant medications for major depressive disorder. This advisory reported suicidality (ideation and attempts) in clinical trials of various antidepressant drugs in pediatric patients. The FDA asked that additional studies be performed, because suicidality occurred in treated and untreated patients with major depression and thus could not be definitively linked to drug treatment.

Upon further analysis of pooled clinical trial data, suicidality was reportedly increased in children and adolescents being treated with SSRIs for depression (approximately 2% for those treated with placebo vs 4% for those on SSRIs, although no actual suicides occurred in either group). These clinical trials were unfortunately not designed to specifically and clearly assess suicidal thoughts and behaviors and therefore included events that were not readily classified.

The FDA issued a public health advisory in October of 2004[39] mandating a black box warning for antidepressants. Antidepressant treatment of children and adolescents with depression then significantly decreased over the next 2 years, although apparently so did suicides for this population. In 2007, the FDA extended its warning to young adults.[40]

Currently, evidence does not exist to associate an increased risk of suicide in patients with OCD and/or other anxiety disorders being treated with SSRIs. However, physicians should closely attend to whether treated patients have unusual, uncomfortable adverse reactions (eg, akathisia) or if they might have comorbid bipolar disorder (which may involve only subtle hypomanic episodes), as antidepressant use seems to occasionally be associated with triggering dysphoria and, sometimes, manic episodes in such individuals.

Children, adolescents, and young adults being treated with antidepressants should be closely and frequently monitored, particularly early in treatment, for any suicidal ideation or actions.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors

Class Summary

First-line pharmacologic treatments consist of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs have the advantages of ease of dosing and low toxicity in overdose. Available SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), and sertraline (Zoloft). SSRIs are generally preferred over clomipramine in treating OCD. The adverse effect profiles of SSRIs are less prominent, so improved compliance is promoted. SSRIs do not have the cardiac arrhythmia risk associated with TCAs, however, dose-dependent QT prolongation has been reported with citalopram. Because of the risk for QT prolongation, citalopram is contraindicated in individuals with congenital long QT syndrome and the dose should not exceed 40 mg/d.[36, 37] Arrhythmia risk is especially pertinent in overdose, and suicide risk must always be considered when treating a child or adolescent with a mood disorder.

Fluoxetine (Prozac)

Fluoxetine selectively inhibits presynaptic serotonin reuptake with minimal or no effect in the reuptake of norepinephrine or dopamine. Selective serotonin inhibitors such as fluoxetine have less sedation, cardiovascular, and anticholinergic effects than the TCAs.

Citalopram (Celexa)

Citalopram enhances serotonin activity due to selective reuptake inhibition at the neuronal membrane. Citalopram is FDA approved for depression but has been used for the treatment of anxiety disorders. SSRIs are the antidepressants of choice due to minimal anticholinergic effects.

Paroxetine (Paxil)

Paroxetine is a potent selective inhibitor of neuronal serotonin reuptake. It also has a weak effect on norepinephrine and dopamine neuronal reuptake.

Sertraline (Zoloft)

Sertraline selectively inhibits presynaptic serotonin reuptake at the neuronal membrane. It is FDA approved for the treatment of OCD, posttraumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety.

Fluvoxamine (Luvox)

Fluvoxamine enhances serotonin activity by selective reuptake inhibition at the neuronal membrane. It does not significantly bind to alpha-adrenergic, histamine, or cholinergic receptors and thus has fewer adverse effects than TCAs. It is FDA-approved for OCD in children (8-17 y) and adults.

Escitalopram (Lexapro)

Escitalopram is an SSRI and S-enantiomer of citalopram. Its mechanism of action is thought to be potentiation of serotonergic activity in the CNS, resulting from inhibition of CNS neuronal reuptake of serotonin.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Class Summary

Tricyclic are a class of antidepressants that work by inhibiting the reuptake of norepinephrine or serotonin at presynaptic neurons.

Clomipramine (Anafranil)

Clomipramine is FDA approved to treat obsessions and compulsions in OCD. It is a dibenzazepine compound belonging to family of TCAs. It inhibits the membrane pump mechanism responsible for uptake of norepinephrine and serotonin in adrenergic and serotonergic neurons. Clomipramine affects serotonin uptake, while it affects norepinephrine uptake when converted into its metabolite desmethylclomipramine.

Desipramine

Desipramine is a TCA that has norepinephrine and serotonin reuptake-inhibition properties. It is not FDA approved for OCD; however, it has shown beneficial effects, especially when combined with SSRIs.

Serotonin Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitor

Class Summary

The dual serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor antidepressants (SNRIs) venlafaxine (Effexor) and duloxetine (Cymbalta) may also have efficacy in OCD, and they have safety and tolerability profiles comparable to those of the SSRIs. However, neither has yet been FDA approved specifically for the treatment of OCD.

Venlafaxine (Effexor, Effexor XR)

Venlafaxine is a serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. It may treat depression by inhibiting neuronal serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake. In addition, it causes beta-receptor down-regulation. It is used in the treatment of OCD; however, it is not FDA approved for this indication.

Duloxetine (Cymbalta)

Duloxetine is a potent inhibitor of neuronal serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake. Its antidepressive action is theorized to be due to serotonergic and noradrenergic potentiation in the CNS.

Antipsychotic Agents

Class Summary

Antipsychotics, such as haloperidol, olanzapine, and risperidone, have been used with some success in augmenting SSRIs in patients with OCD, particularly in patients with comorbid Tourette disorder or other tic disorders. These agents are not FDA approved for the treatment of OCD but may be beneficial.

Risperidone (Risperdal, Risperdal Consta, Risperdal M-TAB)

Risperidone is an atypical antipsychotic that has high affinity for both serotonergic and dopaminergic receptors. It also binds to alpha1-adrenergic receptors and, with lower affinity, to H1-histaminergic and alpha2-adrenergic receptors. It is approved to treat patients with bipolar mania, schizophrenia, and irritability associated with autistic disorder.

Olanzapine (Zyprexa, Zyprexa Zydis)

Olanzapine is an atypical antipsychotic agent approved for the treatment of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and treatment-resistant depression. It may be helpful in the treatment of OCD; however, it is not FDA approved for this indication.

Lithium (Lithobid)

Lithium is an antipsychotic agent that is indicated for bipolar disorder. It influences the reuptake of serotonin and/or norepinephrine at cell membranes. It has been used in the treatment of OCD; however, it is not FDA approved for this indication.

Haloperidol (Haldol, Haldol Decanoate)

Haloperidol is an antipsychotic agent that exerts its effects through blocking dopamine receptors. It has been used to augment SSRIs in patients with OCD.

Antianxiety Agents

Class Summary

Augmentation with antianxiety agents such as buspirone may be beneficial in patients with OCD.

Buspirone

Buspirone is an antianxiety agent not chemically or pharmacologically related to the benzodiazepines, barbiturates, or other sedative or anxiolytic drugs. It is a 5-HT1 agonist with serotonergic neurotransmission and some dopaminergic effects in the CNS.

 

Questions & Answers

Overview

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are common obsessions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are common compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are the psychiatric comorbidities of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Which skin findings are characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is included in the evaluation of suspected obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the treatment options for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of serotonergic antidepressants in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are the options for management of treatment-resistant obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Which medications are used in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are the DSM-5 criteria for obsessions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are the DSM-5 criteria for compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

How are obsessions and compulsions categorized in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are new DSM- 5 diagnoses in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD)?

What is the pathophysiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are the etiologies of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of genetics in the etiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of infectious diseases in the etiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are possible neurologic causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of stress in the etiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of parenting in the etiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the prevalence of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in the US?

What are the racial, age and gender predilections of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the prognosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What should be included in patient education about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are useful websites for the patient education about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Presentation

What should be the focus of history in the evaluation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What should be included in a psychiatric review of systems and comorbidities in the evaluation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

How is schizophrenia differentiated from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are common obsessions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are common compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

How does obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) affect interpersonal relationships?

Which skin findings are characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

DDX

Which comorbid diagnoses are frequently encountered in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are the risk factors for suicide in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Workup

Which types of tests are performed in the evaluation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of imaging studies in the workup of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS) in the workup of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of the mental status exam (MSE) in the workup of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Treatment

What are the treatment options for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of medications in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of norepinephrine (NE) in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of glutamatergic agents in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of behavior therapy in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of exposure and response (or ritual) prevention (ERP) in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of meditation and relaxation in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of psychodynamic psychotherapy in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the initial approach for management of treatment-resistant obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What are the treatment options for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with treatment resistance?

Which non-FDA-approved interventions have been used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What is the role of neurosurgery in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

When are specialist consultation indicated in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

What should be included in the long-term monitoring of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Medications

Which medications are used in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Which medications should be used with caution in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in children and adolescents?

What is the efficacy of pharmacologic treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?