OCD Causes

OCD: Causes, Risk Factors, and Treatment Options

An estimated 2.5% of the U.S. population has OCD, and it makes many people wonder the OCD causes. OCD belongs to the family of anxiety disorders in the current DSM V, and it’s a disruptive, chronic condition. While more women than men will be diagnosed with OCD in a given year, anyone can develop this condition. Children, adolescents, and young adults can be diagnosed with OCD, with the average age of onset just 19 years of age. For OCD patients and their families, understanding what this disorder is and how to treat it is crucial.

What is OCD?

People with OCD struggle with obsessions and compulsions that take up a lot of their time and cause them much distress. OCD is similar to an anxiety disorder, in that the obsessions they deal with cause a lot of worry, fear, and sometimes disgust. As a result, people with OCD create compulsions, or rituals, to alleviate their anxiety and make the obsessions go away – at least temporarily. But the problem with OCD is that these compulsions don’t get to the root of the person’s problem. Despite the compulsions, obsession comes back anyway. For a diagnosis of OCD, a person has to spend at least one hour every day dealing with obsessions and compulsions.

What is an Obsession with OCD?

OCD obsessions are recurrent, untrollable thoughts, urges, or images that someone experiences. These obsessions are unwanted and intrusive. The emotions that obsessions trigger will significantly impact a person’s ability to function in their day-to-day life. While people without OCD may occasionally experience obsessions, they can filter out these intrusive thoughts and get on with their day. Someone with OCD can’t filter these thoughts, no matter how much they know the obsessions aren’t rational. 

For example, a person with OCD who is afraid of germs may not be able to touch doorknobs without wearing gloves. They may have to touch the doorknob a certain way to alleviate their anxiety about contamination. In some instances, a person with OCD about germs may not go out into public at all. Essentially, the obsession is the fear of bacteria and contamination, while the compulsion is wearing gloves and touching the doorknob in a particular way. 

With compulsions, people with OCD feel compelled to perform these tasks that are often excessive and repetitive in nature. For example, touching the doorknob in a particular way can take up a lot of time for someone with OCD. Rituals or compulsions can be both physical tasks, such as arranging items to face a particular direction or mental acts.

If someone has a fear of germs, they may count to a certain number in their head before touching a doorknob. People with anxiety about house fires may check and recheck their stove to make sure the burner isn’t on. While physical rituals are apparent, and it’s easy to see how they could be disruptive, mental compulsions in OCD can be just as devastating. 

Unfortunately, people with OCD would rather not perform these rituals, but they can’t stop without outside intervention and help. While OCD patients may not want to perform compulsions, they have to prevent or alleviate obsessions and anxiety. The circular nature of OCD only worsens obsessions and reinforces negative habits. Fortunately, people with this condition can find relief with medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, or deep brain stimulation techniques when medication doesn’t work or causes unpleasant side effects.

What are Common OCD Causes?

There is not definitive, distinct cause of OCD. But, several OCD risk factors may increase or decrease a person’s chances of developing the disorder. While slightly more women than men are diagnosed with OCD, the disorder can impact anyone of any age, gender, or socioeconomic background.


Teens and young adults are most likely to be diagnosed with OCD. But, school-aged children and people in their forties can develop the condition.


OCD can run in families. If someone has a close blood relative with OCD, their chances of developing OCD increase up to 25%.

Other Disorders

People with OCD often have another co-occurring or comorbid disorder. The most frequent disorders in OCD sufferers are anxiety and depression, Tourettes, ADHD, addiction, eating disorders, and personality disorders. Autoimmune system dysfunctions are also related to OCD triggers, but the research is still ongoing with this theory.

Stress and Trauma

Chronic stress and traumatic events may precipitate the onset of OCD in vulnerable patients.

Pregnancy and Postpartum

OCD symptoms are known to develop or worsen during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Hormones may trigger the disorder, and mothers with OCD tend to experience obsessions and compulsions related to the well-being and safety of their baby.

What is OCD Treatment?

Untreated OCD can severely impact a person’s work, schooling, and relationships. Compulsions and obsessions will also reduce a person’s sense of well-being and mental health. Tragically, untreated OCD increases a person’s risk of becoming depressed or turning to drugs and alcohol to cope. While OCD may be a distressing and chronic condition, it is highly treatable. A combination of medications, primarily SSRIs, and CBT are adequate for treating most cases of OCD. Medications can alleviate depression and anxiety caused by obsessions, while therapy can help patients stop compulsions in their tracks, and develop healthy coping mechanisms when stressful situations occur. 

But what if the medication doesn’t work? In some cases, medications won’t alleviate stubborn OCD symptoms, or the medicine will cause a range of unpleasant side effects. Deep brain stimulation techniques for severe, stubborn OCD symptoms are worth considering. Of these types of treatment options, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is the least invasive and comes with the fewest number of side effects.

TMS uses a strong, magnetic coil, placed over the patient’s head, to deliver magnetic pulses to areas of the brain. These areas that are targeted in TMS treatment sessions are thought to play a role in OCD symptom manifestation. Patients are awake during TMS sessions and can talk or listen to music while treatment is taking place. Sessions rarely last for more than one hour, and the patient can return to work or school that same day.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a complex behavioral condition that still is not fully understood. Experts have not been able to pinpoint the exact causes of OCD. However, there are quite a few things that can contribute to the development of OCD.


People can develop OCD at any time during any age. However, there are certain age groups where OCD is more likely to occur. The majority of people with OCD display enough symptoms to diagnosis around the ages of 19 to 35. Though the maturity process does not directly cause it, the neuropsychological changes that happen with age may make OCD more apparent.


Studies have found that people are more likely to develop OCD if they have a family history of the condition. This situation occurs because OCD has a genetic component. If a person inherits specific genes, their brain and body are more prone to developing OCD symptoms. Although the exact DNA is unidentified, researchers believe that OCD links up with distinct genes that affect how serotonin and dopamine develop within the body.

Stress and Trauma

OCD is associated with traumatic life events in some cases. Studies have found that people who had some trauma, like childhood abuse or violent encounters, were more likely to have OCD. When people encounter a single traumatic event or a lifetime of constant stress, their bodies may react by exhibiting symptoms of OCD.


Environmental conditions are essentially anything in a person’s background or surroundings that could contribute to OCD. In some cases, natural causes are exposure to certain bacteria. Children who develop streptococcal infections are more likely to have OCD symptoms later on in life. OCD can also essentially be a learned behavior. A child who grew up in an environment where OCD manners were common may exhibit symptoms of OCD as an adult.


OCD’s development may link to a person’s biology. Some studies that examined the brain of OCD patients found particular frontal cortex and subcortical structural abnormalities. Those who exhibit these biological factors may process information in a way that leads to OCD behavior. This analysis is a relatively complex cause of OCD since biology is a broad subject in general. Conditions that contribute to biology include:

  • Genetics
  • Childhood nutrition
  • Environment
  • Medical history

Have you been unable to find relief from OCD with medication and therapy alone? TMS may be able to help. Contact us at Pulse TMS today to learn more.

Updated on 2/1/21