Recovery from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a journey. And with an average of around 13 years separating the onset of symptoms with an accurate diagnosis, it’s a journey that’s too often unacceptably delayed. Those distinct but often complementary approaches are exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), and any one of several medications proven to reduce OCD symptoms.
Specifically developed to treat OCD in the 1970s, ERP involves a specialty-trained therapist gradually exposing people with OCD to their fears or triggers, providing opportunities for them to resist engaging in their usual compulsive behaviors. This process helps people learn to tolerate the discomfort and distress caused by their obsessive fears. In most cases, ERP effectively reduces OCD symptoms over time, often within a matter of weeks.
The other first-line treatment for OCD is any one of a number of drugs that have shown efficacy in reducing the severity of OCD symptoms. One of the medications commonly prescribed for this purpose is fluvoxamine, more commonly known by its brand name, Luvox, or Luvox CR (controlled release).
Today, we’ll discover how fluvoxamine works in treating OCD symptoms, while also introducing its limitations and potential side effects. We’ll also discuss the differences in treating OCD with ERP and fluvoxamine, and look into how these approaches can often be used together to help people overcome OCD and get back to living life on their own terms.
What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?
OCD is a mental health condition characterized by a cycle of obsessions and compulsions that can profoundly impact the lives of sufferers and those around them. OCD affects people of all ages and backgrounds and is estimated to affect between 80 and 160 million people worldwide.
In OCD, obsessions are intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that cause intense distress. These obsessions are recurrent and difficult to control. Common obsessions revolve around harm, sexuality, relationships, contamination, among many other themes. People with OCD often recognize that these obsessions are irrational, yet struggle to dismiss or ignore them.
The other defining group of symptoms in OCD—compulsions—are the repetitive behaviors or mental acts that people with OCD engage in to alleviate the distress caused by their obsessions or prevent an unwanted outcome. Compulsions can be physical actions like excessive hand washing, arranging objects in a specific order, or mental rituals such as counting or praying. These rituals temporarily relieve distress, but they do nothing to prevent obsessions from returning again, reinforcing a vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions.
When OCD is left untreated, simple tasks like leaving the house, completing assignments, or making decisions can become arduous and time-consuming due to the distressing obsessions and disruptive compulsions associated with OCD. This can lead to a higher risk of other mental disorders—such as major depression—severe isolation, and far-reaching effects on a sufferer’s life.
What is Luvox (fluvoxamine)?
Luvox (fluvoxamine) is a medication that falls into a group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) along with Lexapro (escitalopram), Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), Celexa (citalopram), and Paxil (paroxetine). Though serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and a tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) called clomipramine are sometimes used to treat OCD symptoms, SSRIs are more frequently prescribed for this purpose.
The immediate effect of SSRIs is to increase the amount of serotonin between nerve cells in certain parts of the brain. However, there is no conclusive evidence of a serotonin deficiency in people with OCD, so the benefits of SSRIs in OCD treatment aren’t thought to be a result of this immediate effect. Rather, they most likely work as a tool to alleviate OCD symptoms through gradual changes that occur over time in response to increased activity in these nerve cells.
SSRIs are also used to treat depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—conditions that frequently co-occur with OCD—although the main mechanisms of action believed to alleviate symptoms of these disorders differ.
Fluvoxamine’s use in treating OCD
Fluvoxamine has been studied extensively and, like other SSRIs, has been shown to effectively reduce OCD symptoms. You may wonder why so many people choose the challenging process of ERP therapy when an affordable, generic pill can effectively control OCD’s symptoms. One important consideration is the time required for fluvoxamine and other medications to work.
“When you take fluvoxamine for anxiety or depression, it tends to work for most people within two to four weeks,” says Jamie Feusner, MD, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and Chief Medical Officer at NOCD. “With OCD, it usually takes anywhere from about six weeks to about 12 weeks to start working, and, in some cases, things continue to improve for many weeks or even months after that. Needless to say, this requires a lot of patience. There’s also a chance that fluvoxamine might not work sufficiently, or at all for an individual, but we really have to wait for at least 12 weeks to make that assessment. At that point, a provider might prescribe another type of SSRI, a different sort of medication, or another form of treatment entirely.”
It’s worth noting that ERP usually results in a significant reduction of OCD symptoms within 12 to 20 weeks for most people. Another thing differentiating fluvoxamine’s use in treating OCD as opposed to other mental disorders is the dosage: “Usually, higher doses of fluvoxamine are used for OCD compared to GAD or depression,” explains Dr. Feusner. “In fact, at higher doses, it practically becomes a different drug, working on an entirely different area of the brain.”
Feusner says that a daily 200mg or higher dose of fluvoxamine is typical among OCD patients, whereas 100mg is a typical dose for people with depression.
Another thing people need to consider when taking Luvox is the side effects it’s associated with—side effects that people may experience whether the drug reduces their OCD symptoms or not. Many of these are mild to moderate and tend to disappear within a few weeks. That said, other side effects can persist longer. Some of fluvoxamine’s more common side effects include:
- dry mouth
- reduced sex drive
- decreased appetite
- Withdrawal symptoms if stopped abruptly
As is the case with all psychiatric medications, they should be considered carefully for each individual’s needs and monitored by their prescriber, particularly in the first few weeks, to ensure that more serious side effects do not occur. Dr. Feusner adds that if someone takes two or three times the dose of fluvoxamine, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the side effects will be two or three times more severe.
The biggest difference between treating OCD with medications versus ERP therapy is that drugs treat the symptoms of the condition, while ERP for many can result in more long lasting benefits that continue well beyond the episode of treatment. What that means is that if someone’s OCD treatment consists of medication management alone, it’s likely that their OCD symptoms will return when they discontinue their medication. That being said, if fluvoxamine’s side effects are non-noticeable or easily managed, medication management can end up being a long-term option to keep OCD symptoms at bay, as it has been for many.
Often, however, medication like fluvoxamine is used as a means of making ERP therapy more tolerable—or even possible—for some people, especially those with more severe OCD symptoms, allowing them to engage more fully in treatment. As a result, the two treatments can be complementary components of a person’s treatment journey.
These medications can help reduce anxiety and other distress associated with OCD, as well as the severity of obsessions and urges to do compulsions. Secondly, some (but not all) find it helpful to experience a moderate reduction in the severity of their obsessions, urges to do compulsions, and distress, in order to engage in difficult exposure exercises and resist engaging in compulsions, helping them gain response prevention skills with a specialized therapist.
Importantly, when someone is taking an SSRI like fluvoxamine for OCD but there is not a sufficient response, research demonstrates that adding ERP is very effective in further reducing OCD symptoms.
While not always necessary for everyone for a full recovery, medications like Luvox can be an effective treatment option for people living with OCD. They’ve been shown to reduce obsessions, compulsions, and related anxiety, allowing people to regain control over their lives. And for many, they’re an important component of a treatment approach that combines medication management and ERP therapy.
NOCD therapists are specially trained in delivering ERP and regularly refer members to qualified prescribers who can identify medication that may reduce their OCD symptoms and/or the symptoms of other commonly co-occurring disorders such as depressive disorders and anxiety disorders. If you’re considering seeking treatment for OCD or a related disorder, I encourage you to read more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to OCD treatment.