Web-based therapy study to help Utah teens with hair-pulling disorder

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ST. GEORGE — Utah State University is accepting applications from teens aged 12-17 who wish to participate in a study on treating trichotillomania – a hair-pulling disorder – using a web-based psychotherapy program.

The study, which first began in August, is an ongoing program that allows therapists to work with patients through Zoom, a web-based video conferencing software. Patients will participate in 10 one-hour therapy sessions over the course of 12 weeks, after which a therapist will check in at three, six and 12 months to monitor the success of the treatment.

The research team, consisting of six doctoral students led by professor Michael Twohig, have treated a handful of patients since the study began. They hope to treat 30 teens before the end of the year-long study in August 2019.

“Big picture, we want to know what percent of the people we work with can get their hair pulling under control, and we want to know if we can do that over the web,” Twohig said. “Another thing we always learn in these treatment studies is, why do people get better.”

Trichotillomania, which affects approximately 2 percent of the population, is a disorder in which a person is unable to stop pulling out their own hairs, using it as a way to regulate their thoughts and emotions. The exact cause of the disorder is unknown, but is often related to emotional issues such as stress or anxiety.

Usually people report they pull a hair or two for a harmless reason and then they find it rewarding. Then, like a lot of things that are addictive, as you keep doing it you get more and more drawn into it,” Twohig said.

Hair pulling usually results in the person missing entire areas of hair or having bald spots and can leave a person feeling embarrassed, or with skin damage that permanently affects hair growth. In more severe cases, some individuals eat the hair they pull and end up with a matted hairball in their digestive tract which could lead to weight loss, vomiting, intestinal obstruction or even death, according to the Mayo clinic.

Treatment for trichotillomania generally consists of psychotherapy and behavior therapy such as habit reversal training, which involves substituting other behaviors when a person has the urge to pull their hair, cognitive therapy or examining and challenging a person’s thoughts and feelings about hair pulling. It also includes acceptance and commitment therapy where a person learns to accept their impulse to pull hair without acting on it.

Twohig, a psychologist who has studied trichotillomania for 20 years, developed the treatment methods used in the Zoom therapy sessions with his former advisor.

If you go around the world, what we’re doing is pretty consistent with the best care out there,” Twohig said.

The idea to begin trying remote sessions began when Twohig kept receiving calls from people around the state who he wasn’t able to treat long distance. Now therapists can help people from all around the state, and are treating patients who live hours away from Logan.

So far results have been much the same as they would be in person, Twohig said. The team recently finished a similar research project where they treated 80 adults and saw no difference in results between treating the patients in person or online.

“I think it feels very similar to in-person,” Twohig said.

For more information, or to apply for the study, participants must contact research coordinator Jeremy Fruge at 435-797-8303 or jeremiah.fruge@aggiemail.usu.edu to be put on a waitlist for the program.

Email: mshoup@stgnews.com

Twitter:  @STGnews | @MikaylaShoup

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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