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A neurologist looks at a brain scan of a person with OCD.

What causes OCD?

February 14, 2022 Posted in: Blogs , English

If you’ve heard the terms OCD or obsessive-compulsive disorder in pop culture, you probably associate this condition with a need for tidiness, cleanliness, and organization. However, as many who have OCD know, it can be much different. 

What is OCD?

Essentially, this condition causes people to have unwanted obsessions or thoughts ranging from annoying to extremely distressing. These obsessions can lead to activities the person has to do to relieve some anxiety, whether repeating a phrase in their head, washing their hands, or something else entirely. 

Are there multiple causes of OCD?

Finding the cause of a condition can often lead to focused treatments. Currently, there is no known cause of OCD, but there are theories about how this mental illness begins. Let’s take a look at a few ideas.


Doctors and researchers have noticed that people with a first-degree relative with OCD are more likely to develop it themselves. Therefore, they hypothesize that there is a genetic component to this condition.

Childhood infections

Pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS) is a rare condition that affects prepubescent children. Essentially, a small percentage of children who have some sort of streptococcal infection (including strep throat and scarlet fever) tend to develop sudden signs of OCD. Kids with PANDAS may also experience new mood changes, separation anxiety, joint pain, tics, and more. These symptoms may worsen if there is a subsequent strep infection.

Brain structure and health

Many studies on OCD have looked to where it all takes place—the brain—and found some very interesting insights with the help of imaging technologies, including:

  • Differently sized brain structures. Scientists saw that people with OCD had smaller and thinner cortexes than people without OCD. The cortex is responsible for thought, emotion, attention, cognition, memory, and more. They also found that the part of the brain that controls response inhibition, the parietal lobe, was thinner in people with OCD.
  • Brain inflammation. Another study, while much smaller than the one above, found that people with OCD had higher rates of neuroinflammation.

Stress or trauma

Researchers have noted a connection between trauma, stress, and OCD. However, it is still unclear whether these upsetting events alone have the capability of causing OCD to develop or some underlying mechanism has to also exist, whether a genetic predisposition or unique brain structures. 

Can OCD be prevented?

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent OCD from developing. However, if you notice the onset of symptoms in yourself or a loved one, schedule an appointment with a Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group primary care physician. They can discuss your concerns and refer you to a specialist for additional care.  

Our team at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center partners with Baylor College of Medicine’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Program to study innovative treatments for OCD that isn’t well-managed with medication. Learn more about their ongoing clinical trials.

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