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This article is for Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

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Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a preoccupation with an imagined defect in appearance, or excessive concern over a slight physical anomaly. It is characterised by time-consuming behaviours such as mirror gazing, comparing one's appearance with the appearance of others, excessive camouflaging to hide the defect, skin picking and seeking reassurance.[1]Symptoms often begin in adolescence.[2]One study suggested that patients with BDD pay more attention to facial appearance in others, compared to controls.[3]Another found that those with BDD have a tendency to misinterpret the neutral facial expressions of others in a negative way.[4]

Population studies suggest a point prevalence rate of 0.72-2.4%.[2]International studies suggest that 6-15% of patients attending cosmetic surgery and dermatology clinics are estimated to have BDD.[5]Data concerning sex predominance are sparse. One study of medical students found a higher preponderance in males.[6]

Although there are many similarities between the two conditions - which often co-exist - some differences have been identified. Patients with BDD have significantly poorer insight than those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and are more likely to be delusional. They are also significantly more likely to have lifetime suicidal ideation, as well as lifetime major depressive disorder and a lifetime substance use disorder. See also the separate Obsessive-compulsive Disorder article.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends referral to a specialist multidisciplinary team offering age-appropriate care. This is unlikely to be available in many areas, due to lack of resources; however, it is worth getting in touch with local mental health trusts to see what is currently available. The GP's role depends on expertise but it should be remembered that drug management should be part of a package which includes psychological care.

In all patients, however, the GP will need to:

  • Identify cases.
  • For patients at risk of BDD (depression, social phobia, substance misuse, OCD,[10]eating disorder, mild disfigurement or blemish) seeking dermatology or cosmetic surgery referral, ask the following questions:
    • Do you worry a lot about the way you look and wish you could think about it less?
    • What specific concerns do you have about your appearance?
    • On a typical day, how many hours a day is your appearance on your mind? (More than one hour a day is considered excessive).
    • What effect does it have on your life?
    • Does it make it hard to do your work or be with friends?
  • Assess severity - ie how much it is affecting the patient's ability to function in everyday life.
  • Assess risk of self-harm or suicide and presence of comorbidity such as depression.
  • Arrange referral to appropriate secondary care provision.
  • Ensure continuity of care to avoid multiple assessments, gaps in service and a smooth transition from child to adult services (many patients have lifelong symptoms).
  • Promote understanding - make patients/families aware of the involuntary nature of symptoms. Consider patient information leaflets, contact numbers of self-help groups, etc.
  • Consider the bigger picture - cultural, social, emotional and mental health needs.
  • If the patient is a parent, consider child protection issues.

Patients with mild functional impairment can be managed with low-intensity psychological treatment. This may involve:

*ERP is a technique in which patients are repeatedly exposed to the situation causing them anxiety (eg, exposure to dirt) and are prevented from performing repetitive actions which lessens that anxiety (eg, washing their hands). This method is only used after extensive counselling and discussion with the patient, who knows fully what to expect. After an initial increase in anxiety, the level gradually decreases. This is extremely therapeutic, as the patient feels that they have confronted their worst fears without anything terrible happening.

  • Adults with mild symptoms should be offered a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) if they cannot engage in low-intensity psychological treatment, if such treatment has failed, or if they opt not to have more intensive psychological treatment.
  • Adults with moderate symptoms or where low-intensity psychological treatment has failed should be offered high-intensity CBT and ERP (more than 10 hours per patient) or an SSRI.
  • Adults with severe symptoms - offer high-intensity psychological therapy plus an SSRI.
  • Mild dysfunction - offer guided self-help. As for moderate-to-severe if this fails.
  • Moderate-to-severe - offer cognitive behavioural therapy and exposure and response prevention (CBT ERP) as for adults but involve family/carers: individual or group depending on the preference of the patient.
  • If psychological treatment fails, factors which might require other interventions may be involved - eg, co-existence of comorbid conditions, learning disorders, persisting psychosocial risk factors such as family discord, presence of parental mental health problems. In children over the age of 8, adding an SSRI might be appropriate, following multidisciplinary review (but see below concerning safety issues).

Using SSRIs[9, 11]

See separate article Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors and below:

SSRIs in adults
Caution is advised in view of the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and self-harm in people with depression.

Evidence for use of SSRIs in OCD is stronger than for BDD. It is unclear whether this applies to people with OCD or BDD in absences of other comorbidity; further guidance is awaited.

When prescribing, discuss the following and provide written supporting material:

  • Craving and tolerance do not occur.
  • There is a risk of discontinuation/withdrawal symptoms on stopping the drug, missing doses, or reducing the dose.
  • There is a range of potential side-effects (see individual drugs) including worsening anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self-harm, which need to be carefully monitored, especially in the first few weeks of treatment.
  • There is commonly a delay in onset of up to 12 weeks, although depressive symptoms improve more quickly.
  • In high-risk patients, prescribe limited quantities, keep in contact, especially during the first few weeks, and actively monitor for akathisia (restlessness and the urge to move), suicidal ideation, increased anxiety, and agitation.
  • Monitor all patients around the time of dosage changes.
  • NICE recommends fluoxetine as there is more supporting evidence than for other SSRIs.
  • If there is no response to a standard dose, check compliance, check interaction with drugs and alcohol, then consider titrating to THE maximum dose according to the product characteristics.
  • Continue for at least twelve months; withdraw gradually.

SSRIs in children and young people (8-18 years)
Caution is advised in view of the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and self-harm in patients with depression

  • For children and young people, SSRIs are only prescribed by specialists, in conjunction with psychological therapy following assessment by a child and adolescent psychiatrist who should also be involved in dosage changes and discontinuation.
  • Fluoxetine is the first-line SSRI for BDD. In the presence of depression, follow NICE guidance for treatment of childhood depression.
  • Discuss adverse effects, dosage, monitoring, etc with the patient/family/carers as per adults (see above).

Treatment failures (applicable to adults, children and young people)[9, 12]

The following should be in conjunction with specialist assessment and multidisciplinary review:

  • Try another SSRI.
  • Change to clomipramine; however, this has a greater tendency to produce adverse effects. Do baseline ECG and check blood pressure; start with a small dose, titrate according to response, and monitor regularly.
  • Antipsychotics - sometimes used to augment the effect of an SSRI.
  • Inpatient treatment - for 'last resort' treatment failures.
  • Residential/supportive care - for patients with chronic severe dysfunction.
  • Patients with BDD do not usually benefit from surgical treatment.[13]

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Further reading and references

  1. Buhlmann U, Winter A; Perceived ugliness: an update on treatment-relevant aspects of body dysmorphic Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2011 Aug13(4):283-8.

  2. Bjornsson AS, Didie ER, Phillips KA; Body dysmorphic disorder. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 201012(2):221-32.

  3. Stangier U, Adam-Schwebe S, Muller T, et al; Discrimination of facial appearance stimuli in body dysmorphic disorder. J Abnorm Psychol. 2008 May117(2):435-43.

  4. Buhlmann U, Gleiss MJ, Rupf L, et al; Modifying emotion recognition deficits in body dysmorphic disorder: an Depress Anxiety. 2011 Oct 328(10):924-31. doi: 10.1002/da.20887.

  5. Aouizerate B, Pujol H, Grabot D, et al; Body dysmorphic disorder in a sample of cosmetic surgery applicants. Eur Psychiatry. 2003 Nov18(7):365-8.

  6. Taqui AM, Shaikh M, Gowani SA, et al; Body Dysmorphic Disorder: gender differences and prevalence in a Pakistani BMC Psychiatry. 2008 Apr 98:20.

  7. Phillips KA, Pinto A, Menard W, et al; Obsessive-compulsive disorder versus body dysmorphic disorder: a comparison study of two possibly related disorders. Depress Anxiety. 200724(6):399-409.

  8. Phillips KA, Kaye WH; The relationship of body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders to obsessive-compulsive disorder. CNS Spectr. 2007 May12(5):347-58.

  9. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - core interventions in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder; NICE Clinical Guideline (November 2005)

  10. Stewart SE, Stack DE, Wilhelm S; Severe obsessive-compulsive disorder with and without body dysmorphic disorder: clinical correlates and implications. Ann Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Jan-Mar20(1):33-8.

  11. Depression in children and young people; NICE (September 2005)

  12. Ipser JC, Sander C, Stein DJ; Pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy for body dysmorphic disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jan 21(1):CD005332. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005332.pub2.

  13. Crerand CE, Menard W, Phillips KA; Surgical and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures among persons with body dysmorphic disorder. Ann Plast Surg. 2010 Jul65(1):11-6.