The long-term course of obsessive-compulsive disorder is insufficiently known. We studied the course of this disorder in patients who were followed up for 40 years.
Patients admitted with a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder to the Department of Psychiatry, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Göteborg, Sweden, between 1947 and 1953 were examined by an experienced psychiatrist using a semistructured interview between 1954 and 1956 (n=251). The diagnosis was made according to the criteria of Schneider. A reexamination was performed by the same psychiatrist between 1989 and 1993 (n=122). In another 22 patients, the necessary information was obtained from close informants and medical records. The response rate in surviving patients was 82%. The mean length of follow-up from onset was 47 years.
Improvement was observed in 83%, including recovery in 48% (complete recovery, 20%; recovery with subclinical symptoms, 28%). Among those who recovered, 38% had done so already in the 1950s. Forty-eight percent had obsessive-compulsive disorder for more than 30 years. Early age of onset, having both obsessive and compulsive symptoms, low social functioning at baseline, and a chronic course at the examination between 1954 and 1956 were correlated with a worse outcome. Magical obsessions and compulsive rituals were correlated with a worse course. Qualitative symptom changes within the obsessive-compulsive disorder occurred in 58% of the patients.
After several decades, most individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder improve, although most patients continue to have clinical or subclinical symptoms.