Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Treatment of OCD

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Clinical and animal research sponsored by NIMH and other scientific organizations has provided information leading to both pharmacologic and behavioral treatments that can benefit the person with OCD. One patient may benefit significantly from behavior therapy, while another will benefit from pharmacotherapy. Some others may use both medication and behavior therapy. Others may begin with medication to gain control over their symptoms and then continue with behavior therapy. Which therapy to use should be decided by the individual patient in consultation with his or her therapist.

Pharmacotherapy

Clinical trials in recent years have shown that drugs that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin can significantly decrease the symptoms of OCD. The first of these serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) specifically approved for the use in the treatment of OCD was the tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine (AnafranilR). It was followed by other SRIs that are called “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” (SSRIs). Those that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of OCD are flouxetine (ProzacR), fluvoxamine (LuvoxR), and paroxetine (PaxilR). Another that has been studied in controlled clinical trials is sertraline (ZoloftR). Large studies have shown that more than three-quarters of patients are helped by these medications at least a little. And in more than half of patients, medications relieve symptoms of OCD by diminishing the frequency and intensity of the obsessions and compulsions. Improvement usually takes at least three weeks or longer. If a patient does not respond well to one of these medications, or has unacceptable side effects, another SRI may give a better response. For patients who are only partially responsive to these medications, research is being conducted on the use of an SRI as the primary medication and one of a variety of medications as an additional drug (an augmenter). Medications are of help in controlling the symptoms of OCD, but often, if the medication is discontinued, relapse will follow. Indeed, even after symptoms have subsided, most people will need to continue with medication indefinitely, perhaps with a lowered dosage.

Behavior Therapy

Traditional psychotherapy, aimed at helping the patient develop insight into his or her problem, is generally not helpful for OCD. However, a specific behavior therapy approach called “exposure and response prevention” is effective for many people with 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.

Studies of behavior therapy for OCD have found it to be a successful treatment for the majority of patients who complete it. For the treatment to be successful, it is important that the therapist be fully trained to provide this specific form of therapy. It is also helpful for the patient to be highly motivated and have a positive, determined attitude.

The positive effects of behavior therapy endure once treatment has ended. A recent compilation of outcome studies indicated that, of more than 300 OCD patients who were treated by exposure and response prevention, an average of 76 percent still showed clinically significant relief from 3 months to 6 years after treatment (Foa & Kozak, 1996). Another study has found that incorporating relapse-prevention components in the treatment program, including follow-up sessions after the intensive therapy, contributes to the maintenance of improvement (Hiss, Foa, and Kozak, 1994).

One study provides new evidence that cognitive-behavioral therapy may also prove effective for OCD. This variant of behavior therapy emphasizes changing the OCD sufferer’s beliefs and thinking patterns. Additional studies are required before the promise of cognitive-behavioral therapy can be adequately evaluated. The ongoing search for causes, together with research on treatment, promises to yield even more hope for people with OCD and their families.

How to Get Help for OCD

If you think that you have OCD, you should seek the help of a mental health professional. Family physicians, clinics, and health maintenance organizations may be able to provide treatment or make referrals to mental health centers and specialists. Also, the department of psychiatry at a major medical center or the department of psychology at a university may have specialists who are knowledgeable about the treatment of OCD and are able to provide therapy or recommend another doctor in the area.

What the Family Can 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.

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