Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – Diagnosis, Symptoms, and Treatment

Medically reviewed by Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, MS

Medical Professional

Updated - December 14, 2020

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu is a medical doctor from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, interested in pediatrics and neonatology.

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What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic psychiatric condition characterized by obsession, compulsion, or both.  The disease typically affects individuals during childhood or adolescence and often continues until adulthood.  Obsessions are characterized by intrusive thoughts or urges that lead to anxiety and distress.  Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that the person feels compelled to accomplish according to set rules.

Patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder often have coexisting psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.  Symptoms may lead to significant social and functional impairment.

What Causes Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Genetic and environmental factors likely cause obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Studies show that a network in the brain called the cortico-striato-thalamo-cortical circuit contributes to the disease’s pathogenesis.  Other brain circuits are also likely involved.  Patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder often have family members that are also affected.  The onset of the disease is closely associated with environmental triggers such as stress and traumatic events.  There is also evidence to suggest that stroke and traumatic brain injury can precipitate the onset of the condition.  Lastly - fluctuations in hormones may contribute to the disease as premenstrual and postpartum women can develop new-onset disease or disease exacerbations during these periods.

OCD is frequently associated with other psychiatric disorders such as:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders - anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa
  • Tourette disorder

How Common is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a relatively uncommon psychiatric condition that often requires referral to a psychiatry and psychology specialist - mainly if first-line and conservative measures are unsuccessful.

The 12-month prevalence of obsessive-compulsive disorder is approximately 1.2%, and the lifetime prevalence of the condition is about 2.3%.  Women are usually affected more often than men in adulthood.  Men are more frequently affected with the disorder during childhood.  Patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder often have a coexisting anxiety disorder (76%) and major depressive disorder (63%).  About 29% of affected patients also have a tic disorder – this is more prevalent in males who developed OCD during childhood.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of OCD typically include obsessions, compulsions, or both.

Obsessions are characterized by intrusive thoughts or urges that lead to anxiety and distress.  This often includes thoughts of contamination, violent images, or urges to perform specific actions.  These obsessions are involuntary and unpleasant.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that the person feels compelled to accomplish according to set rules.  Compulsions frequently include rituals such as washing, checking, and counting – patients feel an urge to perform these activities in response to an obsession.


The diagnosis is based on criteria set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  The diagnosis’s key features include intrusive thoughts, images, or urges, as well as repetitive behaviors and mental acts.  These symptoms are typically time-consuming and cause significant social and occupational impairment.  They may not be related to another medical or psychiatric diagnosis.

Other psychiatric disorders must be considered in the diagnosis. They can have overlapping symptoms or coexist with OCD – these include major depressive disorder, tic disorder, psychotic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Your doctor may order laboratory tests to exclude other metabolic or infectious diseases that can produce similar symptoms.  Commonly ordered blood tests include a CMP (comprehensive metabolic panel), CBC (complete blood cell count), and thyroid function studies (TSH, free T4).  They will also usually check a urine analysis and urine drug screen.

Occasionally, your doctor will order an MRI of the brain to rule out structural abnormalities such as tumors or stroke.  This is typically the case if you have associated neurologic symptoms such as headache, weakness, or numbness.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Medication

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is usually treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or both.  Exposure and response prevention is a type of cognitive therapy that may be particularly beneficial.  The most commonly prescribed SSRIs include:

Anafranil (clomipramine) and Effexor (venlafaxine) are additional prescriptions that are efficacious.  Most of these medications typically take at least 2 weeks to a month for individuals to notice any symptomatic improvement.  They should be trialed for at least 6 weeks in most cases.  Refractory OCD may require the use of antipsychotic drugs such as Risperdal (risperidone).


  1. Soomro GM, Altman D, Rajagopal S, Oakley-Browne M. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) versus placebo for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2008; :CD001765.
  2. Dell'Osso B, Nestadt G, Allen A, Hollander E. Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder: A critical review. J Clin Psychiatry 2006; 67:600.
  3. Koran LM, Hanna GL, Hollander E, et al. Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Am J Psychiatry 2007; 164:5.


OCD Medication List

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.