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Questions & Answers About OCD
Children and Adolescents
What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is one of the most common
psychiatric illnesses affecting young people.
OCD is an illness in which obsessions and/or compulsions arepresent. Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, images or impulseswhich cause distress. Compulsions are behaviors or actionsperformed to alleviate the distress caused by unwanted intrusivethoughts. To be diagnosed with OCD, the obsessions or compulsionsmust last for more than one hour a day, or cause significant distress,or significantly impair daily functioning.
Avoidance of various stimuli — objects, persons, images, thoughts,etc. — that trigger obsessions and compulsions is common in OCD,which affects approximately 2%-3% of all children and adolescents inthe United States. Although adults with OCD are usually aware thatthe obsessions or compulsions are unreasonable or excessive, thisinsight is not always present in children and adolescents.
What are some typical obsessions and compulsions?
Common obsessions include unrealistic fears of being contaminated,
of causing harm to others, and of incompleteness. These obsessions
can include blasphemous and/or strange sexual thoughts, a problem
with the lack of symmetry or a need for certainty. Typical compulsions
include repetitive behaviors such as rereading, rewriting, checking,
cleaning, counting, ordering, and doing something over and overagain until it feels “just right.” OCD-affected individuals compulsivelyseek reassurance by asking the same question repeatedly, despitehaving already received the answer.
What age groups are at risk for OCD?
OCD is an illness that affects children, adolescents and adults. In
large population studies, it was discovered that one-half to two-thirds
of adult OCD cases started in childhood.
Although OCD does occur at earlier ages, there are generally twopeak ages for the onset of OCD. The first peak of onset occurs in pre-adolescence between 10-12 years of age. The second peak occurs inadulthood in the 20’s and early 30’s.
Is there a cure for OCD?
Unfortunately, at the present time there is no cure for OCD. However,
there are treatment approaches that have been proven to control
OCD symptoms in many cases. The “gold standard” of treatment for
OCD includes both medications and cognitive-behavior therapy. Anti-
OCD medications control symptoms, but do not “cure” the disorder.
This means that the positive effects of an anti-OCD medication only
occur as long as the drug is being taken. Even while taking anti-
obsessional medications, some symptoms continue but are less
Are treatments for children different from those for
Management of OCD is very similar in all age groups. Behavior
therapy approaches for young people are modified to be more “child-
friendly” and accessible to a child’s understanding.
When are medications used in childhood and
adolescent OCD?
Medication is considered when children are experiencing significant
OCD-related impairment or distress, and when cognitive-behavioral
therapy is unavailable or only partially effective. The benefits must be
judged to out- weigh the risks when medications are used.
What types of medications are used in OCD?*
Anti-OCD medications are classified as antidepressants. But, only
those antidepressants affecting the brain chemical serotonin most
effectively treat OCD. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) comprise
the standard anti-OCD medications, which include all selective
serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and one of the tricyclic
antidepressants (TCA). SSRIs (citalopram/ Celexa;
escitalopram/Lexapro; fluoxetine/Prozac; fluvoxamine/Luvox;
paroxetine/Paxil; and sertraline/Zoloft) and the TCA clomipnamine
(Anafranil) successfully treat OCD independently of their effects on
The FDA placed a black-box warning to alert prescribing doctors and patientsthat special care be taken when any antidepressant medications are used to treatdepression and other disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) inchildren and adolescents. The FDA reported an increase in spontaneous reportsof suicidal thoughts and/or behavior among children receiving medication, butthere is no evidence that these suicidal thoughts or behaviors lead to anincreased risk of suicide.
How do OCD medications work?
Anti-OCD medications work by affecting the brain chemical identified
as serotonin. Serotonin allows certain brain cells (called neurons) to
communicate with other brain cells. Anti-OCD drugs interfere with the
recycling of serotonin, allowing it to spend more time outside cells,
thereby affecting other cells. How or why this reduces obsessions
and compulsions is not fully understood.
Which anti-OCD medication should be tried first?
Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRls) are important for treating acute
conditions, as well as maintenance regimens in children and
adolescents. All of the SSRIs work equally well, but on an individual
basis one may work better than the others, requiring a process of trial
and error supervised by the child’s psychiatrist. Side effect profiles or
a positive family history of response may be used as a rationale for
an SSRI choice. There is some indication that clomipramine may be
more effective than SSRIs. However, given their preferable side
effect profiles, SSRls remain the first line of medical treatment.
What are the side effects of anti- OCD medications?
SSRls have side effects that may include stomach upset, drowsiness,
agitation and headaches. Rare side effects include behavioral
activation in children and adolescents - mood switching to an
unusually happy state or suicidal thoughts. Close monitoring by the
treating psychiatrist is necessary, especially when initiating or
What is the best medication dosage for OCD in children
and adolescents?
The best dose of anti-OCD medication is determined on an individual
case-by-case basis. The smallest amount of medicine that effectively
treats the young person’s OCD is preferred. However, most children
metabolize medications quite rapidly, and relieving OCD symptoms
often requires the use of higher, adult-sized doses.
How long does it take for medication to work and what
duration is recommended?
All anti-OCD medications work slowly. Medication is often first
considered when the child’s OCD is severe, and both the child and
family are in distress. However, it may take up to two or three months
to see improvement in the OCD. Also, ongoing improvement of OCD
may continue between I 2 weeks and one year after starting
Optimal duration of treatment for OCD in children is unknown. Many
clinicians recommend 9 to I 8 months of treatment after symptom
resolution/stabilization, followed by a very gradual decrease in
dosage. Relapse upon discontinuation of medications is more
common than relapse when cognitive-behavior therapy is used.
What else is effective in treating OCD?
Cognitive-behavior therapy should always be considered as a
treatment for OCD, alone or in addition to medication. This is a safe
and effective treatment for OCD in children and adults. Exposure and
Ritual Prevention (ERP) is a type of cognitive-behavior therapy
designed to decrease anxiety by exposing individuals to the stimuli
that cause their distress, then having them resist urges to engage in
their usual behaviors ( rituals or compulsions).While the patient
remains exposed to the feared stimulus, anxiety dissipates over time
as the stimulus loses its anxiety-provoking nature. Supportive
dynamic psychotherapy is effective for OCD, but it is important to finda therapist with specific behavioral training in ERP.
What is the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation?
The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation (OCF) is a not-for-profit
mental health organization. Its mission is to increase research into,
treatment for and understanding of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The OCF’S resources and activities include:
- Publish a bimonthly OCD Newsletter
- Website:
- Organized Chaos, a webzine for teens and young adults
- Compulsive Hoarding section on the main website
- Annual three-day conference
- Promotion of support groups and OCF affiliates
- Behavior Therapy Institutes for training mental health professionals
to treat OCD
- OCF Research Awards
- The OCF Genetics Collaborative
- Distribution of articles, pamphlets, books and tapes about OCD and
related disorders
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this publication is notintended to provide medical advice. This information is intended onlyto keep you informed. It is strongly advised that you check anymedications or treatments with a qualified mental health provider.
This booklet was written for the OCF by S. Evelyn Stewart,M.D What can I do to help!
Join the OC Foundation and become a partner in our efforts to
eradicate OCD. The search for a cure will take a long time and be
very expensive. The Foundation needs your help to continue its vital
education and service programs and to sup- port research in this


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