What Is Trichotillomania (TTM)?

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What Is Trichotillomania?

Trichotillomania (TTM), also known as hair-pulling disorder, is a condition in which the affected person repeatedly pulls out, twists out, or breaks off hair from any part of the body for non-cosmetic reasons.

People with trichotillomania will pull out head hair as well as eyelashes, eyebrows, and/or hair on other parts of the body, such as the underarm, pubic, chin, chest, or leg areas. They may pull out their hair intentionally or unconsciously.

Trichotillomania is classified in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder.

Symptoms 

According to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, trichotillomania can come and go, stopping for days or even months before reoccurring. The hair-pulling behavior can also happen during sleep.

While trichotillomania can manifest differently depending on the person, it has five distinct characteristics, according to the DSM-5:

  1. Recurrent pulling out of one’s hair resulting in noticeable hair loss
  2. An increasing sense of tension immediately prior to pulling out the hair or when attempting to resist the behavior
  3. Pleasure, gratification, or relief when pulling out the hair
  4. The disturbance is not better accounted for by another mental disorder and is not due to a general medical condition such as alopecia areta
  5. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning

The following rituals and behavioral patterns often precede pulling: 

  • Combing through the hair
  • Feeling individual hairs
  • Tugging at hairs
  • Visually searching the scalp and hairline

Causes and Risk Factors

While no one knows for sure what causes trichotillomania, biological forces as well as behavioral, learning, and psychological components are thought to play a role.

Trichotillomania is a relatively rare illness, affecting 1% to 2% of the population. Trichotillomania can affect people of all ages; however, it appears to be much more common among children and adolescents than adults. Roughly 90% of adults with the condition are female.

Family History

Having a family member or relative with trichotillomania increases the risk for the condition, which suggests that there may be a heritable component to the condition. One twin study suggested a heritability estimate of 76.2%, indicating that genetics plays a significant role.

Co-Occurring Conditions

Trichotillomania that occurs for the first time in adults may be secondary to another psychiatric illness, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Major depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Tourette's syndrome

Diagnosis

Because trichotillomania can resemble other medical conditions associated with hair loss such as alopecia areta, diagnosis of trichotillomania often requires both a dermatological and psychiatric evaluation. Diagnosis may be complicated as alopecia areata itself can sometimes trigger trichotillomania.

In both adolescents and adults, a trichotillomania diagnosis may be further hampered by the person’s reluctance to disclose their hair-pulling behavior.

Young Children

In very young children, trichotillomania has been compared to other habits such as thumb sucking or nail-biting. Children less than 5 years old often pull their hair out unknowingly or even while they sleep. In the same way that thumb-sucking stops spontaneously for most children, the majority of children who begin to pull their hair at this early age will stop on their own.

Preadolescents and Young Adults

Trichotillomania often begins between ages 9 and 13. Interestingly, the majority of people (70% to 90%) affected by trichotillomania at this age are female. Among people in this age group, trichotillomania tends to be chronic in nature.

In addition, these individuals often have oral rituals associated with hair pulling, such as chewing or licking the lips, or even the eating of hair. Approximately 1% to 3% of college-aged individuals in the U.S. have trichotillomania.

Treatment

Treatment of trichotillomania is often unnecessary for very young children as they usually grow out of it. However, for people with adolescent-onset trichotillomania, treatment may be necessary, especially if it is suspected that the person is also consuming the pulled hair, which can cause dangerous blockages in the gastrointestinal system.

Psychotherapy

Cognitive behavioral techniques have demonstrated some efficacy in treating trichotillomania. Prominent among these is habit reversal therapy, which aims to help people develop skills to reduce their harmful behaviors, including:

  • Self-monitoring (awareness training)
  • Identification of behavior triggers
  • Modifying the environment to decrease the likelihood of pulling behavior
  • Identifying a substitution behavior that is incompatible with hair pulling

Medication

Currently, there is limited evidence that medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are effective in treating trichotillomania, so the FDA has not approved any medications for specifically treating the condition.

The following medications may be used to reduce any co-occurring depression or obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

  • Anafranil (clomipramine)
  • Depakote (valproate)
  • Lithobid, Eskalith (lithium carbonate)
  • Luvox (fluvoxamine)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Zoloft (sertraline)

Coping

While the best way to cope with trichotillomania will depend on your age and severity of symptoms, there are a few strategies you or your child to try:

  • Find a healthy replacement habit. Try squeezing a stress ball, handling textured objects, or drawing—or ask your healthcare professional for some other ideas.  
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Given that trichotillomania often coexists with other mental illnesses, it’s helpful to learn and practice relaxation techniques, including deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and progressive relaxation.
  • Make a chart. Each day you go without pulling your hair, add a sticker or checkmark and reward yourself after a streak. Try hanging the chart in a room where you tend to pull out your hair.
  • Seek support. It’s always helpful to talk with others who understand what you’re going through. The TLC Foundation offers a variety of online support groups as well as a weekly community hangout on Zoom.

If you or a loved one are struggling with trichotillomania, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. What is Trichotillomania (Hair Pulling Disorder)?

  2. Woods DW, Houghton DC. Diagnosis, evaluation, and management of trichotillomania. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2014;37(3):301-17. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2014.05.005

  3. Merck Manual. Trichotillomania. Updated June 2018.

  4. Novak CE, Keuthen NJ, Stewart SE, Pauls DL. A twin concordance study of trichotillomaniaAm J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2009;150B(7):944-9. doi:10.1002/ajmg.b.30922

  5. Harrison JP, Franklin ME. Pediatric trichotillomaniaCurr Psychiatry Rep. 2012;14(3):188–196. doi:10.1007/s11920-012-0269-8

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