LAS VEGAS (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – When working with patients referred for suspected body dysmorphic disorder, expect the initial groundwork to take more time than for other disorders.

“I think that these patients are among the most severely ill that we see in clinical practice – although body dysmorphic disorder often goes unrecognized, because patients are often very ashamed of their concerns, and they find it hard to talk about them,” Katharine A. Phillips, MD , said at the annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association.

Defined in the DSM-5 as preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that are not observable or that appear slight to others, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) often causes substantial distress and impairment of day-to-day functioning and is associated with a high rate of suicidality. “When these patients walk into your office, you cannot tell by looking at them what their appearance concern is going to be,” said Dr. Phillips, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, Providence, R.I. “Sometimes they point it out to you and you can see that their nostrils are a tiny bit asymmetrical or that they have a little scar on their chin, but it’s not very noticeable. It’s not noticeable until the patient points it out, and even then it’s a slight flaw. But in most cases, the body areas that the patient is preoccupied with look entirely normal.”

BDD affects an estimated 1.7%-2.9% of the general population; about 60% are female. In two-thirds of cases, it onsets during childhood or adolescence. The preoccupations about physical appearance that are associated with the disorder “are very obsessional and distressing,” Dr. Phillips said. “They may think ‘I look ugly. People are laughing at me. I look like a freak.’ They can be focused on any part of their appearance, but most often it’s the face or head. Skin is No. 1, followed by hair and nose.” Complaints may include perceptions of scarring, perceptions of skin color, too much facial hair, or hair that’s too curly or straight. On average, BDD patients report thinking about their perceived flaws for 3-8 hours a day. “Some say it’s all they think about all day long,” said Dr. Phillips, who also directs the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Program at Rhode Island Hospital, in Providence.

“Insight is usually absent or poor, and BDD-related ideas or delusions of reference are common. A majority mistakenly think that other people are taking special notice of them in a negative way because of how they look. If they walk down the street, for example, they may misperceive people as staring at them. If they hear people talking to one another they may think, ‘They must be talking about how ugly my nose is.’ I have patients who have physically assaulted strangers on the street because they’re so certain that they’re being made fun of because of their appearance flaws, which exist in their mind.”

Functional MRI studies of BDD patients demonstrate aberrant visual processing. “They overfocus on tiny details, so the brain is trying to extract detail where there isn’t any,” she explained. “A complementary finding is that they have reduced visual processing of holistic visual stimuli (“seeing the big picture”), compared with healthy controls. One of my patients said to me, ‘When I look at myself I’m just one big pimple without any feet or even any toes.’ They focus in on the body areas they hate and have trouble perceiving the rest of themselves.”

Compulsive repetitive behaviors that are done in response to the appearance preoccupations may include camouflaging (for example, covering perceived hair thinning with a hat), comparing their appearance with that of other people, mirror checking, excessive grooming, questioning others about their appearance or seeking reassurance about the perceived flaws, skin picking, and tanning (often to darken “pale” skin). Functional impairment varies but is usually substantial. For example, in several studies, Dr. Phillips and her associates found that 39% of BDD patients were currently not working because of psychopathology (for most, BDD was their primary diagnosis), about 20% had dropped out of school primarily because of BDD symptoms, 29% had been housebound for at least a week because of their BDD symptoms, 38% had been psychiatrically hospitalized, and the rates of lifetime suicidal ideation ranged from 71% to 81%. “More than one-quarter have attempted suicide,” she said.

About three-quarters seek and two-thirds receive some kind of cosmetic treatment for BDD, most commonly dermatologic treatment and plastic surgery (most often rhinoplasty). “General recommendations are that cosmetic treatment should not be done on these patients,” Dr. Phillips said. A recent practice guideline from the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery recommends that surgeons not operate on a rhinoplasty candidate who screens positive for BDD ( Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2017 Feb;156 [2 _suppl]:S1-30 ).

Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) at a high enough dose and for a trial duration of 12-16 weeks are the first-line medications for both nondelusional BDD and delusional BDD. “Most patients with BDD don’t receive adequate first-line pharmacotherapy,” Dr. Phillips said. “Often, high doses of SRIs are needed, sometimes above the [Food and Drug Administration]-approved limits, but I don’t exceed these limits for clomipramine or citalopram.” Recommended SRI doses for BDD are similar to those in the American Psychiatric Association’s practice guideline for obsessive-compulsive disorder. She recommends checking an EKG when patients take a high dose of escitalopram.

In cases of partial or no response to an SRI, consider whether the dose was high enough. “In the vast majority of patients I see for consultation, it wasn’t,” Dr. Phillips said. “Check adherence, and extend the trial if necessary, with 3-4 weeks at the maximum recommended tolerated dose.” In her clinical experience, atypical antipsychotics can sometimes help when added to an SRI, especially in patients who are agitated, aggressive, impulsive, or severely anxious, but antipsychotics are not currently recommended as monotherapy. “In my view, the most pressing need in the BDD field is for research on the efficacy of antipsychotics, especially as SRI augmentation agents,” she said. “We have so little data.” SRI augmentation of buspirone also can prove helpful.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the psychosocial treatment of choice for BDD. However, Dr. Phillips cautioned that if BDD patients receive treatment comparable to that of patients with OCD or depression, they probably won’t get better. “It needs to be tailored to BDD symptoms, which are unique in many ways,” she said. “As you would with any patient, express empathy, instill hope, and attend to the therapeutic alliance.”

She recommended using one of the two published evidence-based CBT manuals for BDD: “ Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Body Dysmorphic Disorder: A Treatment Manual ,” by Sabine Wilhelm, PhD, Dr. Phillips, and Gail Steketee, PhD (New York: Guilford Press, 2013) and “ Body Dysmorphic Disorder ” by David Veale, MD and Fugen Neziroglu, PhD (West Sussex, U.K.: 2010).

Key CBT principles include helping patients cut down on BDD rituals – for example, by spending less time in front of mirrors or discarding their pocket mirrors. Gradual exposure to social situations, combined with behavioral experiments, also is recommended. Other core CBT components include cognitive therapy, perceptual retraining, motivational interviewing, and providing psychoeducation about BDD.

“I explain to patients that people with BDD see themselves differently than others do, which is supported by visual processing studies,” Dr. Phillips said. “They don’t necessarily buy it, but I think it’s worth putting it out there. Instead of trying to convince them that they look fine, focus on their suffering, preoccupation, and the effect of symptoms on their life. They will usually agree that they are suffering a lot, and that may motivate them for treatment.”

These questions that can help you better understand and diagnose the concerns of BDD patients: “Are you very worried about your appearance in any way?” If yes, “Can you tell me about your concern?”

Suggested questions regarding preoccupations about appearance (DSM-5 criteria A) are: “Does this concern preoccupy you? Do you think about it a lot and wish you could think about it less?” To elicit discussion on the topic of repetitive behaviors (DSM-5 criteria B), consider asking, “Is there anything you feel an urge to do over and over again in response to your appearance concerns?” To determine whether the preoccupations cause clinically significant distress or impairment in functioning (DSM-5 criteria C), ask, “How much does this concern upset you? Does it cause you any problems – socially, in relationships, or with school or work?”

Dr. Phillips disclosed that during the past year, she has received honoraria from the Merck Manual and from Royal Pharma as well as royalties from Oxford University Press, International Creative Management, American Psychiatric Publishing, Guilford Press, and UpToDate.