Somatic symptom disorder formerly known as somatization disorder is characterized by physical sensations and bodily pain caused by mental illness. These symptoms cause a significant amount of distress and may or may not be linked to a medical condition, mental disorder, or other substance abuse condition.
Somatic symptom disorder occurs in about 5 to 7 percent of the adult population. Women are ten times more likely to report somatic symptoms than men. This is explained by the fact that the disorder is often related to childhood abuse and trauma to which women are more often exposed than, men. Somatic symptom disorder can appear in any age group.
Patients with somatic symptom disorder have symptoms that come and go for many years. The good news is that with treatment, most patients can experience an improvement in their symptoms.
Symptoms of Somatic Symptom Disorder
Pain is the most frequent symptom experienced in somatoform disorders and is usually accompanied by pervasive thoughts, emotions, and actions related to the pain. These beliefs, feelings, and behaviors can be debilitating and disruptive to normal functioning.
Thoughts, emotions, and behaviors associated with somatoform disorders may consist of the following:
• Persistent worry about possible sickness
• Interpretation of normal bodily sensations as an indication of severe physical sickness
• Fear that symptoms are dire or life-threatening in the absence of facts or medical confirmation
• Mistrust of medical assessments and treatment
• Excessive visits to a physician or hospital that never alleviate concerns
• More significant impairment than what is commonly expected from a medical circumstance
Causes of Somatic Symptom Disorder
Researchers believe there are many factors including biological susceptibility (it’s more common in women), exposure to emotional stress in childhood, and psychological factors such as learned ways of thinking in the context of a person’s social environment. The main factors include:
• Childhood physical and sexual abuse.
• Poor awareness of emotions/emotional development during childhood. This can be the result of such things as parental neglect or lack of emotional closeness.
• Excessive anxiety and attention to bodily processes and possible signs of illness; low pain threshold.
Risk factors of Somatic Symptom Disorder
Studies have found certain risk factors associated with somatic symptom disorder. These risk factors include a history of
• Substance abuse
• Alcohol abuse
• Neglect during childhood
• Physical and sexual abuse
• Chaotic lifestyle/trauma
• Chronic illness during childhood
• Presence of other psychiatric disorders, especially anxiety or depression
• A heightened attention to bodily sensations
Complications of Somatic Symptom Disorder
Somatic symptom disorder can be associated with:
• Poor health
• Problems functioning in daily life, including physical disability
• Problems with relationships
• Problems at work or unemployment
• Other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and personality disorders
• Increased suicide risk related to depression
• Financial problems due to excessive health care visits
Prevention of Somatic Symptom Disorder:
Little is known about how to prevent somatic symptom disorder. However, these recommendations may help.
• If you have problems with anxiety or depression, seek professional help as soon as possible.
• Learn to recognize when you’re stressed and how this affects your body — and regularly practice stress management and relaxation techniques.
• If you think you have somatic symptom disorder, get treatment early to help stop symptoms from getting worse and impairing your quality of life.
• Stick with your treatment plan to help prevent relapses or worsening of symptoms.
Diagnosis of Somatic Symptom Disorder
To be diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder, a patient:
• Must have one or more symptoms that cause distress or disrupt daily life.
• Must have excessive thoughts, feelings, or behaviors in response to the symptoms that meet at least one of the following criteria:
• Overly excessive and long-lasting thoughts about the seriousness of the symptoms
• Continuously high levels of anxiety about health or symptoms
• Extreme amount of time and energy focused on symptoms and health concerns
• One or more symptoms must be persistent (typically present for more than 6 months)
Treatment of Somatic Symptom Disorder
The goal of treating somatic symptom disorder is to manage symptoms using both behavioral therapy and sometimes medications that treat the underlying anxiety and depression. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that helps patients learn ways to change their patterns of thinking or behavior in order to change the way they feel. CBT helps the patients to better cope with anxiety and stress and respond to situations more effectively. If medication is prescribed, antidepressants are a common choice. Antidepressants in addition to helping mood, have been reported to help ease such symptoms as pain, fatigue, pain in joints, and sleep problems.