Repeated hand-washing became a “ritual” for 28-year-old graduate student Kim Ju-eun. Fearing germs, she could not stop herself from washing her hands frantically and frequently.
Which made sense when Kim was later diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.
The anxiety disorder is characterized by uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviors that people feel compelled to perform.
The number of patients suffering from the disorder has gone up in recent years, especially among young adults, a report showed.
According to the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, the number of OCD patients in South Korea surged to 24,000 in 2013, up 13 percent from 2009.
By age, those in their 20s and 30s accounted for nearly half of the total, at 24 percent and 21.2 percent, respectively.
Of the total patients, men made up about 60 percent.
“These days, people have more things to check constantly such as emails and smartphones in a fast paced life. I believe compelled habits of checking things causes more occurrences of the disorder,” said Jeon Hong-jin, a psychiatrist at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul.
Symptoms vary from checking and touching things repeatedly to counting. Some obsessed with germs, may constantly wash their hands, while others may repeatedly lock their doors before bed for fear of intruders.
In some extreme cases, patients are even preoccupied with thoughts of violence and hurting acquaintances.
Having obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors does not necessarily signal OCD. Symptoms must cause tremendous distress and interfere with daily life.
While most adult patients with OCD recognize that their obsessive thoughts and behaviors are not normal, they still struggle to control their actions.
For children with OCD, symptoms are often misperceived as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, doctors said, adding that a medical checkup is necessary to produce an accurate diagnosis.
While the exact cause of OCD remains unknown, researchers suspect a functional disorder of the brain. OCD symptoms are known to flare up when parts of the neural circuits in the frontal lobe do not operate properly.
Although most cases of OCD are acquired throughout life, the disorder may run in families for some people, experts said.
Symptoms can be greatly reduced by various treatments. Behavioral therapy and medication are the first steps.
One of the techniques used in behavioral therapy is “exposure and response prevention,” which helps the patient learn to tolerate the anxiety caused by not performing a ritual behavior. For example, a patient touches something “contaminated” and refrains from washing. By repeatedly doing this, one gradually is able to control to the anxiety.
Taking antidepressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors is also helpful, doctors said.
Surgery can produce positive results in tackling the disorder but doctors consider this a last resort.
Although it is difficult to fully cure OCD, the latest treatments and medications can significantly alleviate the symptoms for patients, doctors said.
By Lee Hyun-jeong (email@example.com