Treatment for OCD

Treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder includes the following:

  • Behavior therapy (e.g., exposure and response prevention)
  • Antidepressant medication
  • Surgical severing of the cingulum (in extremely rare cases)

There is good clinical support for the efficacy of behavior treatment, especially when combined with medication.

Goals of behavior therapy include desensitization and relearning. The method with the most certainty is exposure and response prevention therapy. In this method, the patient is exposed to the objects or situations that trigger obsessions, fear, and anxiety, but then is prevented from engaging in the usual compulsive response.

A therapist works with the person to identify his or her unreasonable obsessions and helps him or her realize that the effects of their thoughts are not catastrophic. The aim is to teach people to control anxiety without relying on ritualized behavior. For example, a person who obsesses about contamination and germs prohibits him or herself from washing after shaking hands or coming into contact with public places.

During therapy, patients often feel intense anxiety, which they eventually learn to manage until it subsides. Moreover, they realize that their obsessions, when not catered to, eventually disappear along with their anxiety. Success rates are determined by dedication and time. Usually, it takes at least 10 to 20 hours of therapist-controlled practice to see results.

Countless studies have documented the efficacy of exposure and response prevention therapy. It is effective in over 80 percent of people with OCD. In fact, the success rate of exposure and response prevention has led to its use in telephone-access therapy. One program allows people to phone in and get computer-generated response-prevention therapy and also allows them to track their progress.

Relaxation techniques or cognitive techniques, such as self-talk, are occasionally used to relieve OCD symptoms. Some studies report that as many as 60 to 70 percent of people with OCD benefit from this type of therapy. However, evidence for their efficacy is lacking, and these therapies have not been shown to have long-term benefits. They may be beneficial when used in conjunction with exposure and response prevention therapy.

Cingulotomy to Treat Severe OCD

Occasionally, surgical treatment of the cingulum may be beneficial to people who have severe symptoms and who do not respond to treatment. A cut is made between certain nerve fibers that trigger emotional arousal (cingulate gyrus) and the limbic system, which is involved in mood and intense emotion. About 30 percent of cingulotomies result in improvement. The procedure is relatively uncomplicated and is not thought to negatively affect memory, cognition, or intellect.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 28 Sep 2015