The urge to pull out one’s own hair is called trichotillomania. Literally, trichotillomania means “hair-plucking madness.”
Trichotillomania is characterized by the repeated pulling out of one’s own hair, for example, from the head, pubic area, eyebrows, and/or eyelashes. Some individuals pull out their hair more or less automatically, that is, without consciously realizing they are doing so. Others perform the action intentionally to, for example, relieve tension or for other reasons. Repeated hair pulling often leads to visible hair loss.
For advice on what you can do about trichotillomania, see Helpful Things, Self-Help Techniques, and Videos. Self-Help Books as well as reports and blogs from affected people may also provide support. If you experience other problems such as feeling down or depressed, try the free COGITO app for iOS and Android. The app contains numerous tips on how to raise your self-esteem and mood.
In the current classification system for psychological disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; APA, 2013), trichotillomania is recognized as a separate diagnosis. It is described in the chapter “Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders” of the manual under the heading of body-focused repetitive behaviors. However, there is controversy over the classification of trichotillomania as an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder because not every BFRB is obsessive-compulsive in nature and few of those affected suffer from true compulsions such as control or washing compulsions.
Current DSM-5 (APA, 2013) diagnostic criteria for trichotillomania are as follows:
- Recurrent pulling of the hair, resulting in hair loss
- Repeated attempts to reduce or stop the behavior
- Clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning
- Is not due to substance abuse or a medical condition (e.g., a dermatologic condition)
- Cannot be better explained by another psychiatric disorder
Age of onset
The most common age of onset for trichotillomania is late childhood or early adolescence. In approximately three-quarters of affected individuals, the behavior begins between the ages of 6 and 18 (Flessner et al., 2010). For most affected people, the onset lies between the ages of 12 and 14 (Lochner et al., 2010; Odlaug et al., 2010; Ricketts et al., 2019; Tay et al., 2004).
During their lifetime, approximately 1 to 3 percent of the general population will be affected by trichotillomania (Christenson et al., 1991; Grant & Chamberlain, 2016; Hayes et al., 2019 King et al., 1995; Moritz et al., 2023a; Solley & Turner, 2018). Milder cases of trichotillomania that do not result in highly visible consequences, such as significant hair loss, are found in up to 19.2 percent of the general population (lifetime prevalence).
Adolescence and young adulthood
Hair pulling, which results in visible hair loss, has been identified in approximately 1.5 percent of men and 3.4 percent of young women (Christenson et al., 1991; Grant et al., 2020; Grzesiak et al., 2017).
Approximately 1.7 percent (between 0.5 and 2 percent) of adults aged 18 to 69 years are affected by trichotillomania according to studies, but the actual number is probably a lot higher (Grant et al., 2020; Melo et al., 2022).
It is often assumed that females are more commonly affected than males. In adulthood, approximately 80 to 90 percent of clinical cases are women (Bezerra et al., 2020; King et al., 2014; Hautmann et al., 2002). Current research, however, is increasingly questioning these reported gender differences (Grant et al., 2020; Moritz et al., 2023a). In childhood the disorder occurs with about equal frequency in boys and girls (Cohen et al., 1995; Grzesiak et al., 2017).
Individuals with trichotillomania recurrently pull out their hair and cannot stop the behavior, despite the distress and consequences. The amount of hair pulled out, the time spent pulling hair, and the affected areas on the body vary from person to person. Most commonly, hair is pulled from the scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes. Some people use their fingers to pull their hair, whereas others use tools such as tweezers.
Many individuals have noticeable hair loss or even completely bald patches as a result of trichotillomania. Without treatment, trichotillomania can develop into a chronic, recurring disorder.
Thinning or bald patches on the head are often concealed with hairstyles, scarves, wigs, or makeup. Affected individuals often cover missing eyelashes, eyebrows, or body hair by using make-up or other means.
Many of those affected feel ashamed of their appearance and behavior. Emotions of shame and guilt affect their self-esteem. Social activities and physical intimacy are therefore often avoided.
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Ricketts, E. J., Snorrason, I., Kircanski, K., Alexander, J. R., Stiede, J. T., Thamrin, H., Flessner, C. A., Franklin, M. E., Keuthen, N. J., Walther, M. R., Piacentini, J., Stein, D. & Woods, D. W. (2019). A latent profile analysis of age of onset in trichotillomania. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, 31(3), 169–178.
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Tay, Y. K., Levy, M. L., & Metry, D. W. (2004). Trichotillomania in childhood: case series and review. Pediatrics, 113(5), e494–e498. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.113.5.e494