Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) frequently begins in adolescence, but it has been evidenced in younger children as well. About 1 million children and teens in the country suffer from the psychiatric disorder, with scientists believing that biological and environmental factors play a role in its development. Children and teens taking specific medication for (OCD) experience significant improvements in their symptoms when treated with a full course of adjunctive Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), new research shows.

Published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study sought to determine if CBT as an added treatment to drug therapy would be as effective among young patients as it is for adults. Lead by Martin Franklin, PhD, of the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine in Philadelphia, the team conducted a trial on 124 children with OCD who had been taking at least one type of anti-anxiety medication for a minimum of three months, but were still experiencing symptoms. The participants were 7 to 17 years old and were outpatients between 2004-2009 at the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University or Brown University.

Combining CBT With OCD Medication Help Address Different OCD Symptoms

OCD is a disorder marked by ongoing obsessions and compulsions that become invasive and interfere with the ability to proceed in daily routines. Compulsions are repeated actions that individuals engage in to alleviate their persistent, anxiety-provoking obsessions. Someone with OCD, for instance, may repeatedly wash his hands to try to lessen his or her anxiety about contamination. Unfortunately, the repetitive actions only aggravate the illness, though awareness of the increasing severity of the condition varies among patients.

CBT is a short-term form of talk therapy that follows a specific set of guidelines to help people explore and identify thoughts and feelings associated with their behaviors. The approach empowers patients to change their actions even if they cannot change certain undesirable situations.

Patients are often prescribed a subset of serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are selective in nature because they only bind to particular monoamine transporters. SSRIs are frequently prescribed in varying doses for anxiety disorders and depression. Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Luvox are the most common SSRIs given for OCD, with the medication designed to increase serotonin activity in the brain. Serotonin is a known neurotransmitter that regulates emotions and sends messages via a network of receptors throughout the central nervous system.

CBT and SSRIs Significantly Reduce OCD Symptoms

To evaluate the impact of CBT on young OCD sufferers using SSRIs, researchers randomly assigned participants to either receive:

  • Seven CBT sessions over 12 weeks with a psychologist
  • Instructions on CBT
  • No additional treatment beyond medication

All continued taking their SSRIs throughout the trial, with 42 participants included in each group respectively. The outcomes were measured by determining if the children improved their scores by at least 30% on the Children's Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Score.

The findings revealed that the group undergoing CBT along with SSRIs showed a significant decrease in OCD symptoms by at least 30%, a marked change not seen in the other two groups. In fact, those receiving training on CBT procedures did not show any significant improvements, prompting researchers to suggest that effective CBT with trained psychologists is critical in making an impact in the children's condition.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: November 11, 2015

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