Somatic Symptom Disorder
What is Somatic Symptom Disorder?
Somatic symptom disorder is when a person focuses excessively on physical symptoms. They typically believe that they have a medical condition regardless of an official diagnosis or medical assurance of their health and wellbeing.
The obsessive focus on their symptoms often interferes with their day-to-day life. Doctors also refer to this condition as somatoform disorder or somatization disorder.
The main symptom of somatic symptom disorder is the genuine belief that you have a disease or condition without any medical proof. However, there are often other symptoms.
Common somatic symptom disorder symptoms:
- Symptoms unrelated to any known medical condition.
- Symptoms related to a known medical condition but worse than usual.
- Experiencing a disability more severe than expected with a certain condition, disorder, or disease.
- Constant anxiety about a possible illness.
- Obsessive concern about mild symptoms.
- Interpreting benign physical sensations as evidence of disease or illness.
- Distrust in your doctor’s diagnosis or treatment.
- Not responding to medical treatment.
- Fear that any physical activity will damage your body.
- Compulsively examining your body for signs of disease or illness.
The exact cause of somatic symptom disorder is unknown, although several factors may play a role in precipitating the condition.
Potential causes of somatic symptom disorder:
- Emotional Regulation—Challenges with emotional awareness and emotional management might intensify focus on physical symptoms instead of the emotions.
- Genetic Factors—A genetic sensitivity to pain might play a role in the development of the condition.
- Personality Trait—A pessimistic outlook might prompt misinterpretation of physical symptoms or sensations.
- Family Influence—The environment of our upbringing might unwittingly support the development of the condition.
- Learned Behavior—Personal benefits or rewards that we receive from our perceived symptoms, such as attention or special treatment, might trigger the onset of the condition.
There are several recognized risk factors for somatic disorder syndrome.
Risk factors include:
- Anxiety or Depression—Experiencing unpleasant or painful emotions regularly might impact accurate interpretation of possible sensations or symptoms.
- High Risk Category—Someone in a high-risk category of developing any medical condition might be more likely to develop somatic disorder syndrome. For example, someone who has a family history of a certain disease like high-blood pressure or heart trouble.
- Trauma—Stressful or traumatic life events might increase the risk of developing the condition.
- Education—Individuals with lower levels of education might be at greater risk.
- Socio-Economic Status—Individuals in a lower socio-economic status might also be at more risk.
- Other Medical Conditions—A person with a medically diagnosed condition might be more susceptible to believing they have another disease or illness.
- Medical Recovery—A person recovering from another diagnosed disease or illness might be at greater risk.
There is no somatic symptom disorder test to specifically diagnose the condition. A doctor will likely discuss your symptoms and perform a routine physical exam. Doctors typically develop a diagnosis based on how much a patient’s obsession on symptoms disrupts their daily life and mental well-being.
A doctor might consider the following criteria when considering a diagnosis:
- Constant focus on the seriousness of the symptoms.
- Excessive magnification of the severity of symptoms.
- Long-term distress over personal health or symptoms.
- Extreme amount of time and energy spent on concern over health and wellbeing.
Additionally, your doctor may perform diagnostic tests for other medical conditions that might relate to your symptoms.
Possible conditions your doctor might explore:
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Treatment & Recovery
There are two main forms of somatic symptom disorder treatment. These two types include therapy and medication. There is no known somatic symptom disorder cure.
Psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can help address the underlying thinking patterns that support somatic symptom disorder.
Psychotherapy can help a person in the following ways:
- Exploring and reframing your internal beliefs about health, wellbeing, and symptoms.
- Teaching stress reduction techniques.
- Teaching coping techniques.
- Reducing disruptions in day-to-day life.
- Reducing the obsessive focus on symptoms.
- Improving the quality of your life at home, school, and work.
- Increasing healthy engagement in activities associated with physical or emotional discomfort.
- Identifying and addressing any mental health disorders, such as depression.
- Identifying and addressing trauma.
Your doctor may prescribe antidepressant medication to help reduce symptoms associated with somatic symptom disorder. Antidepressants can also help minimize pain.
If left untreated, someone with somatic symptom disorder might experience complications.
Complications might include:
- Poor health—You might experience a reduction in mental, emotional, and physical health.
- Relationship trouble—Constant anxiety and obsession over symptoms can cause issues with friends, family, peers, and co-workers. For example, you might avoid social settings.
- Daily functioning—The time and energy you focus on your symptoms can disrupt your daily life.
- Financial trouble—Medical expenses from regular health screenings and tests can get costly.
- Mental health risks—You might be at greater risk for developing depression or suicide.
If you or a loved one experience any of the signs of somatic symptom disorder, please contact your Baptist Health primary care physician.
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