Somatoform Disorder: When You Think You Have A Problem But You Don’t

Posted on November 12, 2010 in Health and Life

By Divya Gupta:

Consider the following puzzling situation: a person shows physical symptoms such as pain, or paralysis of some part of the body, but careful medical examination reveals no underlying physical causes for any of these problems. Confused? These types of cases are concerned with a branch of disorders called Somatoform Disorders— disorders in which individuals have physical symptoms in the absence of identifiable physical causes for these symptoms. People who have this disorder may have several medical evaluations and tests to be sure that they don’t have another illness. They often become very worried about their health because they don’t know what’s causing their health problems. Their symptoms are similar to the symptoms of other illnesses and may last for several years. People who have a somatoform disorder are not faking their symptoms. The pain that they feel is real.

What are the causes underlying this group of disorders? As is true to most mental disorders, several factors play an important role in this. The causes of undifferentiated somatoform disorder are not clear. Some experts believe that problems in the family when the affected person was a child may be related to the development of this disorder. Depression and stress are thought to be other possible causes. Others, especially in people who overreact to even minor medical conditions, include paying obsessive attention to any minor changes or sensations that their bodies experience. They give the feelings undue weight and worry unnecessarily about them.

In addition these patients yield for more attention and better treatment from family members.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) includes a specific category for somatic symptoms related to psychiatric origins called the somatoform disorders. Specific somatoform disorders include

(1) Somatization disorder: usually involves pain and severe neurological symptoms (such as headache, fatigue), digestive symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea) or sexual symptoms (such as pain during sexual activity, loss of sexual desire, extremely painful periods in women).

(2) Conversion disorder: is when physical symptoms that are similar to a neurological disorder develop, when no neurological disorder is actually present. Paralysis of an arm or leg, vision loss, hearing loss and seizures are common symptoms. Stress may make the symptoms worse.

(3) Hypochondriasis: occurs when a person believes that normal body functions (such as a grumbling stomach) or minor symptoms (such as a common headache) are symptoms of a very serious disorder. To a person who has hypochondriasis, a grumbling stomach may mean stomach cancer or a headache may mean a brain tumor.

(4) Body dysmorphic disorder. This occurs when a person becomes obsessed with a flaw in his or her physical appearance that is either a minor flaw or a flaw that doesn’t exist. He or she constantly worries about the perceived flaw, which can be any part of the body. Wrinkles, hair loss, weight gain, and size and shape of feature like the eyes, nose and breasts are all common concerns for people who have body dysmorhpic disorder.

Treatments of somatoform disorder focus on treating any underlying psychological problems or stresses that may be causing the disorder. When the disorder occurs in conjunction with another mental health problem such as depression, treating that problem often helps to resolve or lessen the symptoms of undifferentiated somatoform disorder. Studies indicate that antidepressants are effective in treating this disorder. Patients also may benefit from programs intended to teach them how to manage stress and to understand the correlation between psychological stressors and physiological symptoms. These programs also teach people how to cope with criticism and how to stop negative behavior patterns. This disorder may be also be age related. Women are more likely than men to have undifferentiated somatoform disorder, as are the elderly and people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Young women who have low socioeconomic status are the most likely group to have undifferentiated somatoform disorder.

This isn’t any laughing matter. Many individuals do not reach the diagnostic stage, as the symptoms may not be that severe. The patients have to be dealt with love and care and should be treated properly.

The writer is a Special Correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz and a student of Psychology at the University of Delhi.

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