Abstract

Twenty patients with chronic obsessive-compulsive rituals were treated in a partially controlled design by in-vivo (real life) exposure with self-imposed response prevention. Treatment included 4-12 weeks as in-patients, and lasted a mean of 23 sessions. All patients were followed-up for at least two years. No patients dropped out during the trial, though one refused domiciliary treatment after discharge. Significant improvement in compulsions was found after three weeks of real-life exposure, and continued during follow-up. At two years follow-up 14 patients were much improved, one improved and 5 unchanged; in a third year of follow-up the improved patient became symptom-free after further exposure treatment. Improvement after three weeks exposure predicted good outcome at 6 and 12 months follow-up.

Muscular relaxation treatment had no significant effect on rituals. Modelling of exposure conferred no advantage over exposure alone for the group as a whole, though it may help selected patients. The role of response prevention is unknown. Patients' commitment to treatment facilitates exposure. Domiciliary treatment with involvement of family members in therapy seems crucial in some cases. Pilot group treatment of patients and families together suggests that this may be a useful adjuvant to individual treatment by increasing motivation and aiding follow-up.

Compulsive slowness presents special treatment problems but can be improved by a prompting and pacing approach.

The course of rituals was often independent of that of agoraphobia, marital problems and depression where these had initially coexisted with rituals. Depressive episodes were common before, during and after treatment, and required tricyclic medication.

The trial sample was predominantly female but was otherwise typical of patients with compulsive rituals. Of the 125 obsessive-compulsives seen in the first author's unit over four years 96 per cent were offered behavioural or anti-depressant treatment. One quarter refused behavioural treatment after it was offered.

Real-life exposure with self-imposed response prevention is usually an effective procedure for lasting reduction of chronic compulsive rituals in well motivated patients.