A Primer on a Common Hair-Pulling Disorder



Jon E. Grant, JD, MD, MPH

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 reported prevalence rates of 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, Medscape spokes with Jon E. Grant, JD, MD, MPH, of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and a leading trichotillomania researcher.

Defining Trichotillomania

What were the earliest descriptions of trichotillomania in the 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) — 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.

A Gap in Clinician Education

Are adolescent patients likely to self-report this behavior, or is it something that physicians need to suss out for themselves?

Clearly, if child psychologists, psychiatrists, or pediatricians see young people with patches of alopecia — eyebrows or eyelashes missing, head hair with spots — in addition to a dermatologic assessment, they should simply ask, “Do you pull your hair?”

But it’s interesting that with the internet, young people are much more likely to disclose and actually come forward and tell their parents that they think they have trichotillomania.

I also hear from a lot of the adolescents that they have to educate their doctors about trichotillomania because so often physicians don’t know much about it and will assume that it’s self-injury or just a symptom of anxiety. It’s a little bit of a flip from what we might have seen 20 years ago.

I’ve seen several patients who’ve said, basically, “I’m tired of no professionals seeming to know about this. I shouldn’t have to be educating my doctors about this.” I tell them that I completely agree. It’s a shame because if a doctor doesn’t know about it, then how can they get the appropriate care?

What are the complications that accompany trichotillomania?

A small percentage, maybe about 10%, will ingest their hair, much like people who bite and swallow their fingernails. The concern there is that because hair is nondigestible, it could create an intestinal plug that could rupture and be potentially life-threatening. That makes it all the more important to ask those who pull their hair what they do with the hair once they pull it.

However, with most people, the real problem is with self-esteem. Young people may not want to socialize, go on dates, or do other things they would normally do because of it. In adults, you may find that they’re far more educated than their job allows but don’t want to go to an interview because they don’t want to have somebody sit there and look at them and notice that perhaps they don’t have any eyebrows, or that they’re wearing a wig. Those psychosocial implications are huge for so many people.

Treatment Options

In a 2021 study, you showed that nearly one quarter of people with trichotillomania do naturally recover from it. What characteristics do they seem to have?

It’s interesting because we see natural recovery across many mental health problems: alcohol addition, gambling, OCD. The question then becomes why is that some people can seemingly just stop doing a behavior? Can we learn from those people?

We did see that those who naturally recovered were less likely to have some other mental health comorbidities. It seems like when you have other things such as skin picking or OCD plus trichotillomania, that it probably speaks to something that perhaps synergistically is keeping it going. But this is just a first study; learning how to harness and understand it is the next step.

What’s the goal of treating trichotillomania?

The desired goal is zero pulling. The realistic goal is more likely significantly reduced pulling that then leads to greater function in life, greater quality-of-life.

One doesn’t have to go from 100 to 0 in order to do that. I always tell people that maybe every now and then, every few months, when something is going on in life, you might find yourself pulling a hair or two. That’s okay. If you’re not pulling every day and it’s significantly reduced, we’ll call that a success. I think that setting reasonable goals at this point is really important.

And what would the treatment pathway look like for most patients?

The standard approach is probably some type of habit-reversal therapy, of which there have been many variants over the years. It involves doing something different with your hand, identifying the triggers that may set you off, and then doing something in response to those triggers that is not pulling and might neutralize whatever that anxious or stressed feeling is. That could be different with each person.

At this point, there is no drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for trichotillomania. Our best approaches have included N-acetylcysteine, a glutamate modulator, which we’ve done research in.

That’s kind of a go-to option for people because its side-effect profile is generally innocuous. The data show that it could be beneficial in many people with very few, if any, side effects. That would be one “medication,” although it’s actually an over-the-counter vitamin. But we’re constantly looking for better and better treatments.

Do you have any final advice for clinicians or researchers?

Given how common it is, I don’t think clinicians should just see it as an innocuous little habit that people should be able to stop on their own. Clinicians should educate themselves about trichotillomania and know where the person should get the appropriate care.

From the research perspective, given the fact that we see this in animals of multiple species — that they overgroom — this seems to be deeply ingrained in us as animals. So when it comes to the underlying neuroscience, people should pay more attention because it probably has a lot to do with our understanding of habit and compulsive behaviors. It arguably can cut across a lot of different behaviors.

John Watson is a freelance writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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