Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Superior to Antipsychotics for OCD

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Superior to Antipsychotics for OCD

A practice I’m seeing more often that concerns me is the addition of antipsychotic medications on top of antidepressants when the antidepressants aren’t working. If someone isn’t showing improvement on an antidepressant alone, a prescriber may add an antipsychotic medication—the idea being it will increase the effectiveness of the antidepressant. The research for this is a little questionable, especially as the side effects for antipsychotics can be pretty bad. I’ve felt strongly enough about this issue that I wrote an editorial about it that the Oregonian published in 2012.

Antipsychotics and obsessive-compulsive disorder

In previous post, I wrote about a study that found that giving an antipsychotic in people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) provided no additional improvement. A recent study looked at whether adding an antipsychotic medication would be helpful to people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Results are extremely clear that the answer is, “No!”

As I’ve written before, the most effective treatment for OCD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure and response (or ritual) prevention (EX/RP). (Note: in other posts, I abbreviate exposure and response prevention as “ERP” but use “EX/RP” here to remain consistent with the article.) There is some research that suggests that antidepressant medication can have a small impact on OCD-related problems, but EX/RP remains the gold standard treatment

Another study showing that CBT does the best with OCD

A 2013 study in JAMA Psychiatry examined a group of people with OCD who were already taking an antidepressant but were still experiencing moderate or worse OCD symptoms. These individuals were divided into 3 treatment groups.

  1. Some received psychotherapy—cognitive behavioral therapy with EX/RP.
  2. Some received an antipsychotic—Risperidone.
  3. Some received a placebo (i.e., inactive) pill.

CBT with ERP was much more effective

The results were striking. The researchers found that only 23% of people showed improvement on the antipsychotic; moreover, this result is even less impressive given that 15% showed improvement on the placebo (e.g., sugar pill). In fact, statistical analysis suggests there was no difference between the antipsychotic and the placebo—this means that the antipsychotic and a sugar pill performed about equally.

By contrast, 80% of people who received cognitive behavioral therapy with EX/RP improved.

80% vs. 23% is a big difference, especially since the latter is more of a placebo effect than a response to an active treatment.

One quibble

In the Conclusion section of the abstract, the writers make a subtle statement that really bothered me:

Patients with OCD receiving SRIs who continue to have clinically significant symptoms should be offered EX/RP before antipsychotics given its superior efficacy and less negative adverse effect profile.” [bolding is mine.]

This statement implies that, even though EX/RP is superior to antipsychotics, that antipsychotics are still a viable treatment. This seems a bit disingenuous, however, as the researchers’ own analyses indicate that whatever improvement antipsychotics demonstrated was likely a placebo effect.

If anything, a sugar pill should be offered before an antipsychotic since they are equally effective, and the former has fewer side effects.

Concluding thoughts

Although I think this is an important study because it makes it clear that adding antipsychotic medication is unlikely to be of much help for someone with OCD, the superiority of ERP over medication for OCD isn’t new information.

There’s already a solid base of research that suggests the EX/RP is superior to antidepressant medication for OCD. Giving an antidepressant to someone receiving EX/RP for OCD neither helps nor hinders treatment. This study makes it pretty clear that antipsychotics should not be considered for people with OCD.