Evidence-Based Reviews

Choosing a treatment for disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders

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Limited evidence, no approved drugs to guide treatment



Chronic disruptive and impulsive behaviors are significant concerns for psychiatric clinicians because of their persistence and potential legal ramifications. To date, few studies have assessed treatment options for pyromania, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), intermittent explosive disorder (IED), kleptomania, and conduct disorder (CD).

This article reviews the literature on the treatment of these disorders, focusing primarily on randomized, controlled studies. Because of the lack of clinical studies for these disorders, however, case studies and open tri­als are mentioned for reference. Summaries of supported medication and psychological interventions are provided for each disorder.

Categorizing impulse-control disorders
The DSM-5 created a new chapter on disruptive, impulse control, and conduct disorders that brought together disorders previously classified as disorders usually first diagnosed in infancy, childhood, or adolescence (ODD, CD) and impulse-control disorders not elsewhere classified. These disorders are unified by the presence of difficult, disruptive, aggressive, or antisocial behavior. Disruptive, aggressive, or antisocial behavior usu­ally is a multifaceted behavior, often associated with physical or verbal injury to self, others, or objects or with violating the rights of others. These behaviors can appear in several forms and can be defensive, premedi­tated, or impulsive.

Despite a high prevalence in the general population1 and in psychi­atric cohorts,2 disruptive and impulse-control disorders have been rela­tively understudied. Controlled trials of treatments do not exist for many impulse-control disorders, and there are no FDA-approved medications for any of these disorders.

Oppositional defiant disorder
Irritability, anger, defiance, and temper are specific descriptors of ODD. ODD seems to be a developmental antecedent for some youth with CD, suggesting that these dis­orders could reflect different stages of a spectrum of disruptive behavior. Transient oppositional behavior is common among children and adolescents, but ODD occurs in 1% to 11% of youth.3 The disorder is more prevalent among boys before puberty and has an equal sex prevalence in young people after puberty.

Regrettably, most ODD research has included patients with comorbidities, most commonly attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Because of this limita­tion, the drugs and programs discussed below are drawn from meta-analyses and review articles.

Pharmacotherapy. No medications have been FDA-approved for ODD. Studies assess­ing ODD have employed a variety of meth­odologies, not all of which are double-blind. The meta-analyses and reviews cited in this section include both randomized and open trials, and should be interpreted as such.

Stimulants are commonly used to treat ODD because of a high comorbidity rate with ADHD, and these drugs have improved ODD symptoms in randomized trials.4 Methylphenidate and d-amphetamine have shown some efficacy in trials of ODD and CD.5-7 These medications are most commonly used when ODD is complicated by ADHD symptoms.

Antipsychotics also have been used to treat ODD, with the largest body of research suggesting that risperidone has some effi­cacy. Risperidone usually is considered a second- or third-line option because it has been associated with adverse effects in chil­dren and adolescents and requires caution in younger populations, despite its potential efficacy.4,8-10

Alpha-2 agonists—clonidine and guanfa­cine—have shown some efficacy in treating ODD but have not been studied extensively. Studies of clonidine, however, often have grouped ODD, CD, and ADHD, which lim­its our understanding of this medication for ODD alone.4,5,11

Atomoxetine has been studied for ODD, but its efficacy is limited, with different meta-analyses finding distinct results regarding efficacy. One explanation for these dispa­rate findings is that improvements in oppo­sitional symptoms may be secondary to improvement in ADHD symptoms.7,12-14

Psychological treatments. As noted for pharmacotherapy, this section provides gen­eral information on empirically studied ther­apies. A series of meta-analyses have been included for further review, but are not iso­lated to randomized, controlled studies.

Individual therapy has shown consistent improvements in ODD. Examples include behavior modification therapy and parent-child interaction therapy. These sessions emphasize skills to manage outbursts and erratic emotionality. Emotion regulation and behavior and social skills training have shown significant reductions in target mea­sures. Some of these programs incorporate both patient and parent components.15-17

Family/teacher training programs such as “Helping the Noncompliant Child” and the “Triple P” have yielded significant improve­ments. These programs focus on ways to manage the child’s oppositional behavior at home and in the classroom, as well as strate­gies to limit positive reinforcement for prob­lem behaviors.17-20

Group programs have shown some effi­cacy with ODD. These programs cover a wide number of needs and intents. Examples include the “Incredible Years” program and the Community Parent Education Program. Research has found that these programs show some efficacy as preemptive measures to reduce the rate of ODD among adolescents.

Conclusions. A number of treatment options for ODD have shown some efficacy. However, many of these options have only been studied in patients with comorbid ADHD, which limits current knowledge about ODD as a distinct disorder.


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