Trichotillomania is a psychiatric condition in which an individual has an uncontrollable desire to pull out his own body hair. It is generally considered to be an impulse control disorder but is sometimes classified as either a subtype or variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Trichotillomania is the most common cause of hair loss in children. First described in 1889, trichotillomania is a psychiatric disorder, the result of which is alopecia or hair loss, caused by repeated pulling of one's hair from, most often the head, followed by the eyelashes and eye brows. But the hair of any part of the body may be pulled and multiple sites may be involved. The individual with trichotillomania will have bald spots on the head or missing eyelashes or eyebrows.
There is an immense amount of embarrassment and denial associated with trichotillomania. It is common for individuals with this disorder to deny their behavior and attempt to hide their hair loss. The hair loss may be disguised by wearing wigs, hats, scarves or hair clips, or by applying make-up or even by tattooing. The act of hair pulling is a private one. Rarely does the hair pulling occur in the presence of another, except for close family members. Because of this fact, social alienation is common in trichotillomania.
The hair pulling may occur either when the individual is relaxed or under stress. For some individuals with trichotillomania, certain situations, such as watching TV, lying in bed, or talking on the phone, will trigger the behavior. The individual either may focus intensely on the hair pulling or the pulling may be done unconsciously. Immediately before pulling hair, the individual with trichotillomania feels a mounting tension. This tension is relieved as a hair root is successfully pulled. Since a tingling sensation is felt upon successfully pulling a hair follicle completely from its root, a neurodermatologic connection may reinforce hair pulling as a means of tension relief. When the hair root remains intact and the hair shaft is broken, this sensation is not felt and the patient may repetitively pull hairs until successful. After pulling the hair, patient may carefully examine the hair root, and the hair bulb may be rubbed along the lips for further stimulation. The hairs may be ingested by some patients.
The amount of time each day that the patient engages in hair pulling may consist of either several brief periods, or a longer intense period. The typical trichotillomania patient will spend one to three hours daily pulling hairs. The urge to pull can be so intense that the individual with trichotillomania cannot think of anything except hair pulling. Thus, social life and work production often suffer with trichotillomania.
The act of hair pulling in trichotillomania is often ritualistic. The necessary implements, such as tweezers, are collected, the location where this is to be performed is determined, the preferred texture or color to be pulled may be planned as well as disposal of the hairs.
Rarely, the individual with trichotillomania may attempt to pull the hairs of others. The hairs of a pet or doll or the fibers of an inanimate object, such as sweater, may be pulled as well. In addition to hair pulling, the hair may be bitten off or twisted or twirled.
Co-existing psychiatric diagnoses such as anxiety , depression, and addictive disorders are common in trichotillomania. Tics , borderline personality disorders , and OCD are all more prevalent in trichotillomania than in the general population. The hair pulling in trichotillomania can be differentiated from that in OCD in that the hair pulling in trichotillomania is an impulse behavior where in OCD it is a repetitive act performed as part of an obsession. The individual with OCD is aware of his or her actions, while the individual with trichotillomania is not always conscious that he or she is pulling hairs.
Trichotillomania is not the underlying cause of hair pulling if there is a medical reason for the hair loss or if another co-existing psychiatric disorder such as hallucination provokes the hair pulling.
Trichotillomania usually begins in the preteens but has been reported in children as young as one year old and has been seen first in adults over 50 years old. Patients in their seventies may suffer from trichotillomania. The mean age of onset is 12 years of age in girls and eight years of age in boys. This condition is seven times more common in children than in adults. Among young children there is no gender preference. But among adults, it is reported up to 10 times more often in females than in males. This may be skewed because females are more likely to seek attention for a medical problem, and because it is easier for males to disguise their compulsions, e.g. by shaving or because of social acceptance of male pattern hair loss.
The total number of Americans who pull their own hair at some point in their lifetime may be as high as 11 million. The prevalence of trichotillomania has been estimated to be as high as 2 percent of the general population. Among college students surveyed, more than 10 percent of college students pull their hair at some point, although only 1 percent meets the criteria for trichotillomania.
Causes and symptoms
There is no clear cause of trichotillomania, but there are psychoanalytical, behavioral, or biological theories for this disorder. Some of the more commonly accepted theories for trichotillomania are:
- childhood trauma
- stressful events
- neurochemical imbalance
The psychoanalytic model purports that trichotillomania occurs in an attempt to resolve a childhood trauma, the most common of which is sexual abuse. According to this model an unconscious unresolved past conflict triggers hair pulling.
The behavioral theory for trichotillomania states that a stressful event, such as moving or the loss of a loved one, or a family conflict precedes the onset of hair pulling and that hair pulling begins in an attempt to relieve tension caused by a stressful event. This behavior continues beyond the initial stimulus and eventually becomes habitual. Later the patient may not be aware of this initial trigger. For a child, the stressor may not be just a single event, but may occur in response to what a child may perceive as excessive demands from an authoritarian or an overbearing parent.
Biological theories for trichotillomania include a neurochemical imbalance, such as a serotonin imbalance. Drugs that correct for serotonin imbalance improve symptoms in many with this disorder. Altered dopamine levels may also play a role in trichotillomania. It is not clear if genetic factors are involved in the development of trichotillomania, although some studies report an increased percentage of relatives with various psychiatric disorders.
The most common symptom of trichotillomania is hair loss. The pattern of alopecia in trichotillomania varies among patients and the degree of hair loss will range from a barely noticeable thinning to total loss of hair. Some patients pull out hairs without regard for symmetry, while others will attempt to follow a pattern or pull out hairs in an effort to maintain symmetry of appearance. Usually, the hair loss on the head is patchy or poorly defined. There are neither scars nor any inflammation in the area of scalp hair loss. The top is the most affected region of the head. Tonsure trichotillomania is a pattern hair loss of the scalp in which hair is present only at the nape and on the outer edge of the scalp. The eyelashes and eyebrows may be plucked off, and hair loss may be noted on the arms, legs, and body. Pubic hair may be sparse.
When to call the doctor
Any continuous pulling of hair or hair loss should be reported to a medical professional, as there are medical causes for hair pulling and hair loss, and if trichotillomania is the underlying cause for this problem, then medical and psychiatric treatment needs to be initiated as soon as possible, since the earlier the intervention, the greater the likelihood that the behavior can be controlled. It is important to realize that the occasional or infrequent twisting, pulling, or chewing of hair in a child does not constitute trichotillomania and does not require medical attention.
The diagnosis of trichotillomania is made by history and interview, along with histological examination of the hairs in the area of hair loss as well as skin tissue in the area. All other medical causes of hair loss must be eliminated. Since patients are adept at disguising and denying the symptoms of trichotillomania, the condition may go on for years without detection or treatment. Most patients are embarrassed to admit to hair pulling and the resultant sequelae, and elicitation of this behavior is difficult. The patient will not usually report pain . All of this makes the diagnosis of trichotillomania difficult. The patient must be made to feel comfortable admitting to and then discussing the behavior.
The clinician may use rating scales to assist in the diagnosis of trichotillomania and to assess the degree to which a patient has trichotillomania. These scales include the Psychiatric Institute Trichotillomania Scale, National Institutive of Mental Health-Trichotillomania Severity Scale, Yale-Brown Obsessive Scale modified for Trichotillomania, the National Institute of Mental Health-Trichotillomania Impairment Scale, and the Minnesota Trichotillomania Assessment Inventory.
According to the American Psychiatric Association there are five criteria which must be met in order for trichotillomania to be diagnosed. They are as follows:
- The hair pulling is recurrent and a noticeable pattern of hair loss is observed.
- The patient feels increased tension prior to the hair pulling.
- This tension is relieved upon pulling hairs.
- The pulling is not associated with another mental condition, and there is no medical cause for the hair pulling.
- The behavior interferes with or disrupts the patient's social and work activities.
There is a subgroup of hair-pullers who do not meet the second and third criteria listed above. These individuals are less likely to hide their behavior and do not suffer from low self-esteem as frequently as those who meet all of the above criteria. There is some debate about whether these people have trichotillomania and about whether these criteria for diagnosis of trichotillomania are too restrictive.
Histological examination of hair follicles and skin biopsies also help in the diagnosis of trichotillomania. In the areas of hair loss in trichotillomania there will be a mixture of short and longer hairs in the area of hair loss. Trichomalacia or distortion of the hair follicles is often present in trichotillomania.
Trichotillomania must be differentiated from medical causes of hair loss and these include: skin conditions such as psoriasis ; trauma, such as that from radiation; endocrine disorders such as hypothyroidism ; infectious diseases such as herpes zoster; inflammation such that of the lids margins, called blepharitis; and tinea capitis, a fungal infection of the scalp. Other psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia , must also be ruled out.
Usually, the patient with trichotillomania does not present for treatment until, on average, two years after the hair pulling has begun. Traditional treatment for trichotillomania involves psychological or behavioral therapy, or medication. Behavior modification, especially with children, helps the child to increase his or her awareness of the hair pulling. Behavioral therapy may be as simple as acknowledging the problem and instituting a plan for desensitization of the behavior.
Habit reversal training (HRT), a cognitive behavioral therapy, has been successfully used in the treatment of trichotillomania. Under HRT treatment the patient acquires increased awareness of his or her actions and learns alternative behavior to the hair pulling. HRT has been employed in group therapy. Addressing the behavior of trichotillomania in a group setting is helpful so the patients realize that they are not the only ones with this problem. This experience also improves social interaction, as isolation is common among patients with trichotillomania.
Medication to correct biochemical imbalances in the brain is a common component of trichotillomania treatment. But since drug trials in children and adolescents have been limited, behavioral therapy is often instituted alone first, prior to using medication. But for some with trichotillomania, behavioral therapy is more successful when drug therapy helps reduce the urge to pull hair. For these individuals, relapses are more frequent when pharmacotherapy is reduced or discontinued.
There are no FDA drugs which specifically treat trichotillomania. The drugs used to treat this disorder have been developed for treatment of other psychiatric problems. The drug which has been the most successful in treatment of trichotillomania is clomipramine (Anafranil), a tricyclic antidepressant.
Since it is hypothesized that serotonin activity is abnormal in trichotillomania, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly given to improve symptoms. Prozac is a common SSRI. Drugs in this class given to treat trichotillomania in children include sertraline (Zoloft), fluvoxamine (Luvox), and clomioramine. The effectiveness of a given drug varies considerably from person to person. If one SSRI drug is not successful in controlling trichotillomania in a given individual, another drug in this class may work. Risperdone and clonazepam, which address a dopamine imbalance, can be added to SSRIs if an SSRI drug does not satisfactorily control symptoms. But these drugs, called neuroleptics, have more side effects in children than in adults.
Since those with trichotillomania do not report pain, drugs to decrease pain thresholds have been tried as well. Other drugs that are given to treat this disorder include buspirone, lithium (Lithobid), naltrexone, paroxetine (Paxil), valproate, and the antipsychotic drug, quetiapine.
Treatment of the resultant medical complications of hair pulling must be addressed. Carpal tunnel can develop from repetitive pulling. Infections at the site of the hair pulling and blepharitis at the eyelid margins can occur, both of which are treated with topical antibiotics and corticosteroids. If there is significant eyelash and eyebrow loss, called madarosis, blepheropigmentation or surgical tattooing can be performed. Although not done often, transplantation of hairs to these areas is possible.
Topical application of colladion can help with regrowth of hair but will not be successful long term unless the underlying behavior is controlled. If the hair pulling continues for long periods without treatment, the alopecia may be permanent.
Anemia, malnutrition , and digestive disorders, including bowel obstructions, can develop, if trichotillomania develops into trichotillophagia or eating of the hairs. Trichobezoars, or hairballs, can form when the hair is bitten off and ingested.
For many with trichotillomania, hair pulling is not an activity that can be stopped at will. For some, however, the suppression of hair pulling may be possible, even if the underlying urge persists. The family needs to be a part of therapy since familial stressors may have triggered trichotillomania.
Because of the shame involved with hair pulling the patient may have other medical problems which go untreated because he or she will not seek any medical care at all, for fear that hair pulling and its associated stigmata will be uncovered. Thus, it is important that once trichotillomania is diagnosed that the healthcare provider inquire into any other medical concerns that the patient may have.
Hypnosis has been used in treatment of childhood trichotillomania. The Erickson approach of hypnosis helps the child to substitute hair pulling for a stroking behavior. Other approaches to hypnosis in trichotillomania teach the child that he or she has control over events in his or her life, including hair pulling. There are other hypnotic techniques that employ adverse conditioning, so that the hair pulling becomes associated with pain instead of pleasure.
Other techniques, consider alternative, used to trichotillomania include biofeedback, yoga , and exercise .
When trichotillomania appears in early childhood, the duration of time during which the child is afflicted, is limited. The remission rate for children diagnosed before age six is high. For many children with trichotillomania, the condition resolves by adulthood.
The prognosis is much more difficult for those who develop trichotillomania after age 13. These children have a higher rate of other co-existing psychiatric disorders. Unfortunately, among those individuals who need long-term treatment for trichotillomania, as is the case when the initial presentation occurs in late childhood or as in adolescence or in adulthood, there is a high relapse rate in spite of intervention. A lack of definitive cause for trichotillomania makes treatment difficult, and the prognosis for a total recovery is poor, although the behavior may be satisfactorily controlled with therapy.
Since, as of 2004, the actual cause of trichotillomania was not known, there is no known means of prevention.
Parents must realize that the earlier the treatment for trichotillomania is begun, the more likely that the hair pulling can be controlled. When trichotillomania strikes the adolescent it is especially important that the behavior be addressed and treated promptly. Adolescence is a time when self-esteem and independence are developing. If the adolescent does not have a positive body image, then fear or ridicule from family and peers can affect his or her ability to interact with others. Development of normal healthy relationships as an adult may be impaired if the family and such support mechanisms as therapy are not in place.
Since often the family dynamics provoke this behavior, parental involvement in therapy is essential. If necessary, the parents must be open to establishing new boundaries within the parent-child relationship.
It is important that parents to realize that trichotillomania is a complex and not completely understood behavior. But it is increasingly believed that trichotillomania has a biological basis, and thus parents must understand that they did not cause it and that they are not the only parents with a child who has trichotillomania. Support for trichotillomania may be found through the Trichotil- lomania Learning Center (available online at <www.trich.org>). Many larger cities may have local support groups. Healthcare providers may help with location of such groups locally.
See also Alopecia; Obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Albert, Daniel M., et al. Principles and Practice of Ophthalmology, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co, 2000.
Burt, Vivien K., and Jeffery William Katzman. "Trichotillomania." In Kaplan & Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, vol. II. Edited by Benjamin J. Sadock and Virginia Sadock. Philadelphia: Lippinicott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Bergfeld, Wilma, et al. "The Combined Utilization of Clinical and Histological Findings in the Diagnosis of Trichotillomania." Journal of Cutaneous Pathology 29 (2002): 207–14.
Diefenbach, Gretchen J., et al. "Trichotillomania: A Challenge to Research and Practice." Clinical Psychological Review 20, no. 3 (April 2000): 289–309.
du Troit, Pieter L., et al. "Characteristics and Phenomenology of Hair-Pulling: An Exploration of Subtypes." Comprehensive Psychiatry 42, no. 3 (May-June 2001): 247–56.
Enos, Stephanie, and Thomas Plante. "Trichotillomania: An Overview and Guide to Understanding." Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services 39, no. 5 (May 2001): 10–18.
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Jordan, D. R., and L. A. Mawn. "Trichotillomania." Canadian Journal of Ophthalmology 38, no. 4 (June 2003): 303–05.
Khouzam, Hani Raoul, et al. "An Overview of Trichotillomania and Its Response to Treatment with Quetiapine: A Case Report." Psychiatry Interpersonal and Biological Processes 65, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 262–70.
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Springer, Karyn, et al. "Common Hair Loss Disorders." American Family Physician 68, no. 1 (July 1, 2004): 93–102, 107–8.
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Martha Reilly, OD
Alopecia —The loss of hair, or baldness.
Dopamine —A neurotransmitter made in the brain that is involved in many brain activities, including movement and emotion.
Histology —The study of tissue structure.
Hypnosis —The technique by which a trained professional induces a trance-like state of extreme relaxation and suggestibility in a patient. Hypnosis is used to treat amnesia and identity disturbances that occur in dissociative disorders.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder —An anxiety disorder marked by the recurrence of intrusive or disturbing thoughts, impulses, images, or ideas (obsessions) accompanied by repeated attempts to supress these thoughts through the performance of certain irrational and ritualistic behaviors or mental acts (compulsions).
Remission —A disappearance of a disease and its symptoms. Complete remission means that all disease is gone. Partial remission means that the disease is significantly improved, but residual traces of the disease are still present. A remission may be due to treatment or may be spontaneous.
Serotonin —A widely distributed neurotransmitter that is found in blood platelets, the lining of the digestive tract, and the brain, and that works in combination with norepinephrine. It causes very powerful contractions of smooth muscle and is associated with mood, attention, emotions, and sleep. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression.
Reilly, Martha. "Trichotillomania." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. 2006. Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3447200589.html
Reilly, Martha. "Trichotillomania." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. 2006. Retrieved May 27, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3447200589.html
Individuals with trichotillomania repetitively pull out their own hair. Trichotillomania as an impulse-control disorder. Some researchers view it as a type of affective or obsessive-compulsive disorder . Nail-biting, skin-picking, and thumb-sucking are considered to be related conditions.
Trichotillomania involves hair-pulling episodes that result in noticeable hair loss. Although any area of the body can be a target, the most common areas are the scalp, followed by the eyelashes, eyebrows, and pubic region. Hair-pulling can occur without the individual's awareness, but is frequently preceded by a sense of increasing tension and followed by a sense of relief or gratification. The resulting hair loss can be a source of embarrassment or shame. Because of a tendency to hide symptoms, and because professionals are relatively unfamiliar with the disorder, individuals either may not seek, or are offered treatment. Untreated trichotillomania can result in impaired social functioning and medical complications.
Causes and symptoms
Scientific research regarding trichotillomania has been conducted primarily in the past 10 years and causes are only theoretical. Psychoanalytic theories suggest that the behavior is a way of dealing with unconscious conflicts or childhood trauma (such as sexual abuse ). Biological theories look for a genetic basis. For instance, people with trichotillomania often have a first-degree relative with an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder. Researchers are also evaluating similarities between trichotillomania and Tourette's disorder. Behavioral theories assume that symptoms are learned, that a child may imitate a parent who engages in hair-pulling. The behavior may also be learned independently if it serves a purpose. For example, hair-pulling may begin as a response to stress and then develop into a habit.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , (DSM-IV-TR ), produced by the American Psychiatric Association and used by most mental health professionals in North America and Europe to diagnose mental disorders, the following conditions must be present for a diagnosis of trichotillomania:
- noticeable hair loss (alopecia) due to recurrent hair-pulling
- tension immediately before hair-pulling, or when attempting to resist hair-pulling
- reduction of tension, or a feeling of pleasure or gratification, immediately following hair-pulling
- significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning
In addition, the DSM-IV-TR requires that hair-pulling not be due to another medical or mental disorder. The tension-release requirement is controversial because 17% of people who otherwise qualify for this diagnosis do not experience this.
Symptoms usually emerge in early adolescence. Episodes may last a few minutes or a few hours during periods of stress or relaxation. Hairs with unique textures or qualities may be preferred. The pulling may include rituals, such as twirling hair off or examining the root. Half of those individuals with trichotillomania engage in oral behaviors—running hair across the lips or through the teeth, biting off the root (trichophagy), or eating hair (trichophagia). The usually try to control their behavior in the presence of others and may hide the affected areas. Symptoms may come and go for weeks, months, or years at a time.
Once regarded as rare, trichotillomania is now considered more common, affecting 1–4% of people in the general population. When the tension-release requirement is excluded, trichotillomania occurs in adult females (3.4%) more often than adult males (1.5%). Among children, both genders are affected equally.
Other possible causes of symptoms must first be ruled out. Hair loss may have a medical cause, such as a dermatological condition. Hair-pulling may have another psychological cause, such as a delusion or hallucination in schizophrenia .
Severity of symptoms is also important. Twisting or playing with hair when nervous does not qualify as trichotillomania. If symptoms are minor or undetectable, a diagnosis should be given only if the individual expresses significant distress. Children should be given the diagnosis only if symptoms persist because hair-pulling may be a temporary phase, much like thumb-sucking.
If individuals deny symptoms, hair-pulling behavior can be assessed by objective measures such as the presence of short, broken hairs or damaged follicles. Some psychological assessment instruments are also available.
Treatment usually starts by determining the current frequency and severity of symptoms. This information, which serves as a measure of progress, is gathered by (a) self-report; (b) reports from significant others; (c) objective measures, such as saving pulled hairs, videotapes, or measuring areas of hair loss; or (d) a combination of these methods.
Primarily, three categories of therapy have been used in the treatment of trichotillomania:
- Psychoanalysis focuses on childhood experiences and unresolved conflicts during early development.
- Medications. Those typically used are antidepressants with serotonergic properties (also used with obsessive-compulsive disorders). Clomipramine (Anafranil) has proven most effective. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have had mixed results. Some researchers recommend low doses of antipsychotic drugs (neuroleptics) in conjunction with SSRIs. Medications are usually combined with behavior therapy.
- Behavior therapy. This includes a number of different approaches: Punishment procedures such as electric shock, topical cream to enhance pain, or mittens placed on the person's hands, are effective but controversial. They are intrusive and are often used with individuals who may be unable to consent, such as children or people with developmental disabilities. Habit-reversal training is the most accepted approach. It teaches individuals to monitor their hair-pulling and substitute it for more healthy behaviors. Alternative forms of behavior therapy include biofeedback and hypnosis.
The effects of trichotillomania can be very serious: Associated feelings of shame may result in avoidance of social situations; chewing hair can result in dental erosion; eating hair may result in hairballs (trichobezoars) becoming lodged in the stomach or large intestine, which can lead to anemia, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, hematemesis (vomiting blood), or bowel obstruction or perforation.
Studies show low success rates with medications and traditional psychoanalysis. Behavioral therapy has reported long-term success rates of 90% or better. Follow-up sessions are encouraged to prevent relapse. A major issue in prognosis is whether an individual receives treatment. Professionals may not recognize or know how to treat trichotillomania effectively. Conversely, individuals with the disorder may be too embarrassed to address their symptoms.
Because scientific research is lacking, no specific information is available regarding prevention.
See also Anxiety and anxiety disorders; Cognitive-behavioral therapy; Tic disorders
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th edition, text revised. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association,2000.
Keuthen, Nancy J., Dan J. Stein, and Gary A. Christenson. Help for Hair Pullers: Understanding and Coping with Trichotillomania. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2001.
Stein, Dan J., Gary A. Christenson, and Eric Hollander, eds. Trichotillomania. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1999.
Diefenbach, Gretchen J., David Reitman, and Donald A. Williamson. "Trichotillomania: A Challenge to Research and Practice." Clinical Psychology Review 20, no. 3(2000): 289-309.
Elliot, Amy J. and R. Wayne Fuqua. "Trichotillomania: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Treatment." Behavior Therapy 31 (2000): 529-545.
Sandra L. Friedrich, M.A.
Friedrich, Sandra L.. "Trichotillomania." Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3405700394.html
Friedrich, Sandra L.. "Trichotillomania." Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. 2003. Retrieved May 27, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3405700394.html
Trichotillomania (trik-o-til-o-MAY-nee-a) is a condition that involves compulsive (kom-PUL-siv) hair pulling, usually the hair on the scalp or the eyebrows or eyelashes.
Penny put on her favorite baseball cap and headed out the door for school. The cap hid the bald spot on the side of her head pretty well. She envied the girls who could wear barrettes and ponytails to school, and she remembered the days when she had worn them too. Over the past 2 years, Penny had started to pull out her hair and her eyebrows. It began gradually at first, but pretty soon her eyebrows were gone, and she had bald patches on her head. She did not want to pull the hair, but she felt a powerful urge to do it. She just could not stop. No one understood why she was doing it, not even Penny. The boys in her class teased her. She pretended not to listen to them, but their unkind comments made her cry when she was alone. Even the nice kids asked her why she did not have any eyebrows. Until lately, Penny did not really know what to say. Then Penny began to see a therapist, who helped her understand that she had trichotillomania.
Trichotillomania is a condition that involves strong urges to pull hair. People with this condition pluck or pull the hair on their heads, their eyelashes, their eyebrows, or hair on other body parts. For people with trichotillomania, the hair pulling is more than a habit. It is a compulsive behavior, which the person finds very hard to stop. A person with trichotillomania feels a strong urge to pull hair, an impulse that is so powerful that it seems impossible to resist.
About 75 percent of people with trichotillomania pull hair from the scalp. In many cases trichotillomania is a response to stress at home or school, while in others it results from a hair-pulling habit developed during childhood. Custom Medical Stock Photos
Pulling the hair often provides a brief feeling of relief, like the feeling of finally scratching an itch but much more intense. But after the feeling of relief, which lasts only a moment, the person usually feels distressed and unhappy about having pulled the hair. Soon the urge to pull hair returns. People with trichotillomania wish they could stop, and may feel ashamed or embarrassed. Many people who have this condition try to keep it secret.
The condition trichotillomania was first described in 1889 by the French physician François Hallopeau. The term “trichotillomania” comes from the Greek words “thrix,” meaning “hair,” and “tillein,” meaning “to pull.” “Mania,” the Greek word for “madness” or “frenzy,” was used in those days for any condition that affected human behavior. Dr. Hallopeau wrote that his patients with hair-pulling compulsions were, in fact, quite emotionally healthy.
Although the exact cause of trichotillomania is unknown, there is growing evidence that it is a biological disorder of neurotransmitter*
- * neurotransmitters
- (NUR-o-tranzmit-ters) are brain chemicals that enable brain cells to communicate with one another and therefore allow the brain to function normally.
function in the brain. Trichotillomania has some similarities to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but in trichotillomania there are no obsessions*, and hair pulling is the only compulsion. Both trichotillomania and OCD fall into the larger category of anxiety disorders. Some people with trichotillomania have other forms of anxiety as well. Trichotillomania can affect children, adolescents, and adults. Both males and females can have trichotillomania, but it seems to be more common among females.
- * obsessions
- (ob-SESH-unz) are repeated disturbing thoughts or urges that a person cannot ignore and that will not go away.
When individuals lose their hair or eyebrows, doctors may first check for other conditions that might cause a person’s hair to fall out, like ringworm*, alopecia areata*, or other skin diseases. But if the person tells the doctor about the hair pulling, it is probably trichotillomania. Penny’s doctor sent her to see a therapist, a mental health specialist who listens to people talk about their experiences and feelings and who can help people work out ways to deal with behavior problems. The therapist explained Penny’s condition to her and told her about the urges, habits, and anxiety that are part of it. She helped Penny understand that the hair pulling was not her fault. Penny felt relieved to know that she was not the only person with this problem and that there were things she could do about it.
- * ringworm
- is a fungal infection of the skin or scalp that appears as a round, red rash.
- * alopecia areata
- (al-o-PEAshah a-ree-AH-ta) is a condition that leads to sudden hair loss, often in small, round patches on the scalp. The cause is not known.
One common treatment for trichotillomania is a behavior therapy* technique called habit reversal. In habit reversal, the person first learns to notice the urge before the compulsion to pull hair becomes too strong to resist. Then the person learns to do something else instead of hair pulling until the urge grows weaker and passes. This can be more difficult than it sounds, because the person may feel increasing, uncomfortable tension and anxiety while trying to resist the urge to pull hair. With time and practice, the brain can begin to react differently to the urges, and the person can start to control the compulsive behavior. Some people also may take medication that helps with the compulsions and decreases the strength of the urges, making them easier to resist. After a few weeks of practice, coaching from her therapist, and support from her parents, Penny began to get better at resisting the urges she felt. Penny has started to see results. Her hair has begun to grow back in.
- * behavior therapy
- is a type of counseling that works to help people change their actions.
Now that Penny’s hair and eyelashes are growing in, she feels better about herself and more hopeful about coping with trichotillomania. Now and then, Penny may continue to feel urges to pull her hair and eyebrows, but she knows what to do to resist them. She knows that these impulses can be stronger in times of stress, but they also can arise on their own during times when Penny is bored or just relaxed. Her therapist is helping Penny learn and practice ways to cope with normal stresses, to stop the urges before they get too strong, and to control her compulsive pulling.
Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders
Habits and Habit Disorders
Golomb, Ruth Goldfinger, and Sherrie Mansfield Vavrichek. The Hair Pulling “Habit” and You: How to Solve the Trichotillomania Puzzle. Silver Spring, MD: Writers’ Cooperative of Greater Washington, 2000. A workbook and guide for kids and teens, parents and therapists that presents useful strategies and tools for conquering trichotillomania.
Trichotillomania Learning Center, 1215 Mission Street, Suite 2, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. The purpose of this organization is to advance the understanding of trichotillomania. Telephone 831-457-1004 http://www.trich.org
"Trichotillomania." Complete Human Diseases and Conditions. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3497700406.html
"Trichotillomania." Complete Human Diseases and Conditions. 2008. Retrieved May 27, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3497700406.html