Trichotillomania is a chronic psychiatric disorder that causes people to repeatedly pull out their own hair. Not only does it result in alopecia with no other underlying causes but it can have significant psychosocial ramifications and rare, but serious, complications. Though the reported prevalence rates are up to approximately 2%, it’s probable that you’ll come upon a patient suffering with this disorder at your practice, if you haven’t already.
To find out more about the best methods for diagnosing and treating this disorder, we spoke with Jon E. Grant, JD, MD, MPH, a leading trichotillomania researcher and part of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
What were the earliest descriptions of trichotillomania in medical literature?
The first real discussion of it probably goes back to Hippocrates, but from a modern medical perspective, discussion began in the 19th century with reports from the French dermatologist François Hallopeau.
They didn’t really call them disorders then – it was long before the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – but they described this in young men who kept pulling their hair for unclear reasons. These early case reports don’t provide a lot of psychological perspective, but they seem consistent with what we see now.
What are the diagnostic criteria for trichotillomania?
The current DSM-5 criteria are recurrent pulling out of hair, an inability to stop it, the pulling resulting in some noticeable thinning or hair loss, and that it causes some level of distress or some type of impairment in functioning.
At what age do most people experience an onset of symptoms?
Generally speaking, it’s in early adolescence, post puberty, around 12-15 years of age. Having said that, we do see children as young as 1-2 years who are pulling their hair, and we occasionally see somebody far older who is doing it for the first time, a sort of geriatric onset.
Overlap and differences with other disorders
You’ve written that although trichotillomania is grouped with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in the DSM-5, the thinking around that has recently shifted. Why is that?
At first, it was noticed that many of these people pulled their hair repetitively in an almost ritualized manner, perhaps every night before bed. That looked like a compulsion of OCD.
When DSM-5 came out in 2013, they grouped it with OCD. Yet people shifted to thinking that it’s kind of a cousin of OCD because it has this compulsive quality but doesn’t really have obsessive thinking that drives it. Many people just pull their hair. They’re not even always aware of it: sometimes yes, sometimes no.
We know that it has some links to OCD. You’ll see more OCD in folks with trichotillomania, but it clearly is not just the same as OCD. One of the biggest pieces of evidence for that is that our first-line treatment for OCD – a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressant – does not really help hair pulling.
Having said that, if people are looking for help with trichotillomania, they often are best served by therapists and doctors who have a familiarity with OCD and have kept it on their radar over the past couple of decades.
How does trichotillomania overlap with skin picking disorder, which is another condition that you’ve closely researched?
It does have some overlap with skin picking in the sense that it often seems familial. For example, the mother may pull her hair and child picks their skin.
It also has a fair amount of comorbidity with skin picking. Many people who pull will pick a little bit or did at some point. Many people who pick pulled their hair at some point. It seems closely related to nail biting as well.
Studies have also shown that one of the things that runs in the histories of most families of people with trichotillomania might be substance abuse – alcohol or drug addiction.
All of this has led people to believe that there might be subtypes of trichotillomania: one that’s more like an OCD and one that’s more like an addiction. That’s similar to the debate with other mental health conditions, that there are probably multiple types of depression, multiple types of schizophrenia.
Is there a component of this that could be defined as self-harm?
That’s been its own debate. It doesn’t seem to have the same developmental trajectory that we see with self-harm, or even some of the personality features.
However, there may be a small segment of folks with trichotillomania that might more appropriately fit that category. For example, those with family histories of trauma, higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, or borderline personality. But it wouldn’t be the majority.
The problem is, if you look at some of the pediatrician data, they often group picking, pulling, and cutting. I think that’s far too all-inclusive.