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.

A Meta-Analysis Comparing Psychotherapy and Medication for OCD

A Meta-Analysis Comparing Psychotherapy and Medication for OCD

This post was featured on our client-centered blog The Art and Science of Living Well, but I thought it would be of interest to therapists as well.

The post is about a finding from a meta-analysis by Cuipjers and colleagues that looked at studies comparing medication against psychotherapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders and depression. For obsessive-compulsive disorder, the researchers found a clear advantage of evidence-based psychotherapy for OCD above medication.

You can read the post by clicking here, and it includes links to the original article, which you can download for free.

Do Antipsychotics Help With PTSD? A New VA Study Says, “No”

Do Antipsychotics Help With PTSD? A New VA Study Says, “No”

This may be just my limited, subjective impression, but I’ve noticed lately more and more clients who’ve been prescribed antipsychotic medications for reasons other than psychosis—sleep   problems, rumination, or suicidal ideation, for example. I’m not anti-med, but given the documented side effects of antipsychotics—weight gain, diabetes, and motor control problems—I think we should be cautious in how these meds are used.

When a recent New York Times article came across my desk that suggested a commonly prescribed antipsychotic, risperidone, may not be very useful in the treatment of PTSD, I was intrigued. Being a dutiful scientist, I tracked down the original article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

What Did the Study Look At?

In this study, patients were recruited from multiple Veterans Affairs Hospitals across the country. Veterans with PTSD who had not responded to at least two trials of antidepressants were recruited. The 296 participants were randomly assigned to receive either risperidone or a placebo for 6 months. The vast majority of the veterans were Vietnam era and male (96.6%). Nearly three-fourths had also received outpatient mental health services in the preceding month.

The results: There were no difference between antipsychotic medication and placebo

At the end of 6 months, there was no difference between veterans who received risperidone and those who received placebo on PTSD symptoms or anything else that was measured, including depression, anxiety, and quality of life. I will note that contrary to my concern about the potential dangers of antipsychotics, the researchers didn’t find any notable adverse effects of risperidone—at least within the 6-month trial. Given that most of these veterans are Vietnam era and older, it’s very sad that no treatment has been very successful in addressing their PTSD.

Antipsychotics May Not Be an Effective Treatment for PTSD

According to this study, antipsychotics don’t appear to contribute to improvements in PTSD—at least for veterans with whom antidepressants didn’t work. Knowing what doesn’t work can be as important as knowing what does work. It was also heartening to see that, despite listing multiple ties to various pharmaceutical companies, the two main authors of this study let the data speak for itself. Too often, I read about researchers receiving pharmaceutical money massaging data to look more favorably for the meds they’re studying. The authors here seemed very conscientious in how they interpreted the data.

In the same issue of JAMA, Dr. Charles Hoge offers a commentary on treating veterans with PTSD. He supports the use of psychotherapy, antidepressants, and the hypertensive medication prazosin, and warns against the use of antipsychotics and benzodiazepines.

Off label use of antipsychotics seems to be a growing trend. A study that came out last month found that antipsychotic prescriptions for anxiety disorders more than doubled in 10 years—even though there’s no published data suggesting antipsychotics are an effective treatment for anxiety! This trend is worth keeping an eye on.

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