Severe, time-consuming

Do you have an overwhelming fear of germs? Do you find yourself constantly ordering and arranging things in a particular way? What about saving newspapers, mail or containers when they are no longer needed? Are you constantly checking on things, such as locking and relocking a door or making sure your oven is off over and over? If so, you may be one of the approximately 2.2 million Americans over the age of 18 that suffer with obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD. An anxiety disorder, OCD’s symptoms include both obsessions and compulsions and can be severe and time-consuming. For instance, someone who feels that his or her hands have become contaminated by germs – an obsession – may spend hours washing them each day – a compulsion. Repetitive behaviors are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away but these so-called “rituals” provide only temporary relief.

Unwelcome thoughts

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts or images, or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. They may be obsessed with germs or dirt, and wash their hands over and over. They may be filled with doubt and feel the need to check things repeatedly. Some of the more common rituals are a need to repeatedly touch things, especially in a particular sequence, or count things. Their obsessions include having frequent thoughts of violence and harming loved ones, persistently thinking about performing sex acts the person finds offensive, or having thoughts that are prohibited by religious beliefs. People with OCD may also be preoccupied with order and symmetry. They may have difficulty in throwing things out so they accumulate or hoard unneeded items. No direct cause for OCD has been discovered although some scientists attribute it to an insufficient level of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

All children worry

All children tend to worry about certain things, whether it’s an upcoming test or the recent loss of a friend. But an estimated half a million children in America have no control over their worries and feel pressure to compulsively act on their concerns. Children with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder usually diagnosed between the ages of 7 and 12, may be obsessed with things like a fear of disease or lucky and unlucky numbers. They deal with these obsessions by rituals involving grooming, moving through specific spaces in a special way and the arranging of objects. Recognizing OCD can be difficult because a child can become adept at hiding their behaviors or they may not engage in the ritual at school, so parents might think that the ritual is just a phase the child is going through. Signs of OCD among children include chapped hands from constant washing, a sudden drop in test grades and a persistent fear of illness.

Two methods

Psychiatrists rely on two main methods of treating patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. Cognitive behavior therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating both children and adults. Cognitive behavior therapy involves retraining the patient’s thought patterns and routines so that compulsive behaviors are no longer necessary. One approach in particular is called exposure and response prevention. This involves gradually exposing the person to a feared object or obsession, such as dirt, and teaching them healthy ways to deal with it. Most people with OCD also benefit from taking certain antidepressant medications, such as Paxil and Zoloft. Antidepressants may be helpful because they may increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s been found to be deficient in OCD patients. However, since these drugs have side effects, the patient may need to try several medications before they find the one that works.

A chronic condition

There’s a difference between being a perfectionist and being obsessed with having things just so. Just because you like your house especially clean or things arranged in a specific manner doesn’t mean you have obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is a chronic condition, which means it may be part of your life for a long time but with the help of a medical professional, the patient can live a healthy, normal life. If you’ve been diagnosed with OCD, you should remain on your treatment plan even if it’s uncomfortable or challenging. Take any medications prescribed for you as directed and discuss any side effects you may be suffering with your physician. A support group would allow you to share your experiences with others in a similar situation. Don’t use alcohol or illegal drugs as a means of coping with your disorder. Instead, get involved in social activities that allow you to interact with others instead of dealing with it in isolation.

Trusted by thousands of listeners every week, T. Glenn Pait, M.D., began offering expert advice as the host of UAMS’ “Here’s to Your Health” program in 1996. Dr. Pait began working at UAMS in 1994 and has been practicing medicine for over 20 years.