What are the causes, risk factors and complications of OCD?

What are the causes, risk factors and complications of OCD?

What are the causes, risk factors and complications of OCD?


The exact cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder is not yet understood to its full extent. A number of studies have shown that the causes of OCD may be a combination of biological, genetic and environmental aspects. These contributing causes are explained as follows:

Biological factors

OCD may be due to changes in the patient’s natural body chemistry or the functions of their brain.

The brain, being an extremely complex structure, contains numerous nerve cells, known as neurons, that are tasked with communicating and working with one another in order to send important messages to the brain to allow for the body to function correctly.

These neurons communicate through chemicals known as neurotransmitters (imagine these chemicals to be the cell phone needed in order to get the message across to another neuron). These neurotransmitters allow for the flow and passing of information.

There was a theory that suggested that serotonin was the chemical in the brain that was responsible for the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This theory has since been proved wrong as scientists now believe that OCD is the result of issues in the pathways of the patient’s brain that are responsible for linking the sections of the brain that deal with planning and judgments with another section that filters the messages that coordinate and advise the body on how to move and function.

To explain this simply, if the brain is trying to tell the body to move or act in a certain way according to its environment, this communication can experience a loss of signal between the neurons. Therefore, the neurotransmitters do not allow for the right communication or message to be sent.

Genetic factors

There is also additional evidence that suggests that the symptoms of OCD can be passed from a parent to a child. However, the genes thought to be responsible for the condition are yet to be identified.

Environmental factors

There are a number of environmental factors that have been identified as stressors that can trigger the condition. However, these only act as a trigger in those who already have the tendency to develop OCD.

These factors have been known to include:

  • Childhood abuse
  • Changes in the home or living situation
  • Concerns and stresses in relationships
  • Death of someone close
  • School or work-related issues or changes
  • Illness

Studies have also discovered a link between OCD and a specific type of infections that is caused by the bacteria Streptococcus. If this specific strep infection is recurrent and left untreated, it has been known to trigger the development of mental disorders such as OCD in children.  

Risk factors

There are certain factors that have been identified in the development or triggering of OCD, these can include any one of the following factors:

  • If the patient has a family member with the condition, their risk of developing OCD is increased.
  • If the patient experiences a life event that is deemed stressful such a car accident or death of a loved one, such events have been known to trigger the reaction of intrusive thoughts, emotional distress and other characteristics of OCD.
  • If the patient experiences other mental disorders such as depression, anxiety or a tic disorder (such as Tourette syndrome), they may be at risk of developing OCD too. In some cases where the patient has an obsession over shouting out obscene words or performing strange actions, this may also be diagnosed as Tourette syndrome. However, in Tourette’s, the patient will feel a tingling and irresistible urge to perform the compulsion, while those with OCD may not act on the compulsion or feel such a strong physical sense of urgency to complete it.


Problems and complications that are the result of OCD can include one or a combination of the results below:

  • Trouble in relationships as loved ones find the patient’s symptoms difficult to deal with.
  • Inability to go to work or school, or to engage in social activities.
  • Suicidal behaviour or thoughts.
  • Dermatitis from continual hand washing and other health issues.
  • Inadequate quality of life.
PREVIOUS What are the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?
NEXT How is OCD diagnosed?