To you, that angry, horn-blasting tailgater is suffering from road rage. But doctors have another name for it — intermittent explosive disorder — and a new study suggests it is far more common than they realized, affecting up to 16 million Americans.
“People think it’s bad behavior and that you just need an attitude adjustment, but what they don’t know … is that there’s a biology and cognitive science to this,” said Dr. Emil Coccaro, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Chicago’s medical school.
Road rage, temper outbursts that involve throwing or breaking objects and even spousal abuse can sometimes be attributed to the disorder, though not everyone who does those things is afflicted.
By definition, intermittent explosive disorder involves multiple outbursts that are way out of proportion to the situation. These angry outbursts often include threats or aggressive actions and property damage. The disorder typically first appears in adolescence; in the study, the average age of onset was 14.
The study was based on a national face-to-face survey of 9,282 U.S. adults who answered diagnostic questionnaires in 2001-03. It was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
About 5 percent to 7 percent of the nationally representative sample had had the disorder, which would equal up to 16 million Americans. That is higher than better-known mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Coccaro said.
The average number of lifetime attacks per person was 43, resulting in $1,359 in property damage per person. About 4 percent had suffered recent attacks.
The findings were released Monday in the June issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.