By a show of hands, how many of you know someone who has asthma? How many of you know someone who has diabetes? Now how many of you know someone who has obsessive-compulsive disorder? Not many. Yet OCD is diagnosed nearly as often as asthma and diabetes. It’s estimated that 2. 2 million American adults have obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is slightly more than the number of people who reside in Houston, Texas, the 4th largest city in the country. And according to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, people go an average of 17 years between the time OCD symptoms begin and the time they begin treatment.
As someone who has OCD, I’d like to talk to you about what obsessive-compulsive disorder is, what some common symptoms are, what causes OCD, and most importantly, what are some of the methods used to treat it. First, let’s learn what OCD is. OCD is a serious disorder of the brain and behavior with a number of symptoms. As defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, obsessive-compulsive disorder is “characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). So what does this mean? Imagine a thought in your head. This thought gets replayed over and over again. It’s like an avalanche, and the only way to get rid of this thought is to immerse yourself in some type of repetitive behavior. The most common behavior, or symptom is washing of the hands over and over. This helps to alleviate the anxiety caused by the thought that’s stuck in your head. Some other common symptoms include the need to repeatedly check things, such as a door lock or light switch.
Also, an inability to throw away anything. This is commonly referred to as hoarding. These “rituals” can become very time consuming. A 2001 study conducted in 19 clinics right here in northern California determined the severity of symptoms in patients having new-onset OCD. Now as you can see from this illustration, 38% had mild symptoms which occupied up to 2 hours of their day. 19% had moderate symptoms which occupied 2-6 hours of their day. And finally, 8% had severe symptoms which occupied more than 6 hours of their day.
With the remaining 35% unable to be determined. As you can see, OCD can be very debilitating. Now that you know what OCD is, and what some of it’s symptoms are, let’s take a look at what causes OCD. While an exact cause of OCD has yet to be discovered, research has narrowed down the possibilities. Some experts believe that OCD is related to a chemical imbalance within the brain. This imbalance causes a communication problem between the frontal lobe and deeper parts of the brain. In this slide, we have two separate brain scans.
The one on the left being from a typical persons brain, and the one on the right being from someone with OCD. As you can see, there’s far more brain activity in the frontal lobe of a person with OCD. Scientists also believe there may be a link between childhood episodes of strep throat and the development of OCD. This occurs because the antibodies that fight strep throat may act on the brain in ways that cause problems with the way neurons communicate. It should be noted, however, that this particular cause is highly debated and is still undergoing research.
Given the severity of OCD, I’m sure you’re wondering what the treatment options are. While there are several experimental treatment options currently ongoing, there are 2 major options that experts agree upon for treating OCD. The first option is cognitive-behavioral therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, cognitive-behavioral therapy, shortened to CBT, is a “psychotherapy that emphasizes the substitution of desirable patterns of thinking for maladaptive or faulty ones. An example of this is putting an OCD patient with a fear of germs in a dirty room and preventing them from washing their hands, in the hopes of learning new ways to cope with their fears that do not involve performing compulsive rituals. The second option for treatment is the prescription of medication. Antidepressants are the most widely prescribed medication for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. These drugs alter the level of serotonin in the brain, affecting mood and anxiety levels. Some common drugs used include Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft.
When treated with a combination of drugs and behavioral therapy, most patients experience a significant reduction of symptoms, and some patients even go into complete remission. As we have just learned, obsessive-compulsive disorder affects millions of people. It could one day impact your children, or your grandchildren. Thankfully there are a number of treatment options in place with new ones still being discovered. I don’t know if I’ll ever be free from the effects of OCD, but at least now I understand what it is and what I can do about it.