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Obsessive compulsive disorder

People with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have thoughts (obsessions) or rituals (compulsions) which happen over and over again. Rituals — such as hand washing, counting, checking on a specific item (like whether the oven was left on), or cleaning — often are done in hope of stopping the thoughts. Doing these rituals, though, gives only short-term relief. Ignoring the urge to do the ritual greatly increases anxiety. Left untreated, obsessions and the need to perform rituals can take over a person's life. OCD is often a chronic, relapsing illness.

People with OCD sometimes have other mental health disorders, such as depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or other anxiety disorders. When a person also has other disorders, OCD is often harder to diagnose and treat. A person can have symptoms of OCD at the same time as, or that are part of, other brain disorders, such as Tourette's syndrome. Getting the right diagnosis and treatment of other disorders is important to successful treatment of OCD.

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If you think you have obsessive compulsive disorder, the first person you should see is your family doctor. A physician can determine whether the symptoms that alarm you are due to an anxiety disorder, another medical condition, or both.

Research shows that people with OCD have patterns of brain activity that differ from people with other mental illnesses or people with no mental illness at all. There is also proof that both behavioral therapy and medication can help people with OCD. A type of behavioral therapy known as "exposure and response prevention" is very useful for treating OCD. In this approach, a person is exposed to whatever triggers the obsessive thoughts, and then is taught ways to avoid doing the compulsive rituals and how to deal with the anxiety.

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Content last updated: March 29, 2010.

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