Somatic symptom disorder happens when a person feels significantly distressed about physical symptoms and has abnormal feelings and behaviors in response to them. These responses interfere with their daily functioning. The physical symptoms may be due to a medical condition or have no clear cause.
Somatic symptom disorder (SSD) is a mental health condition in which a person feels significantly distressed about physical symptoms and has abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviors in response to them. The disorder disrupts their daily functioning and quality of life.
Although a person with somatic symptom disorder reports symptoms, the symptoms may have no medical explanation or be normal body sensations or discomfort. Even when there’s a medical cause, the person’s worry is out of proportion to the symptom.
People with somatic symptom disorder are often unaware of their underlying mental health condition and believe that they have serious physical ailments. The distress often causes them to visit multiple healthcare providers and to have many medical tests and unnecessary procedures.
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Illness anxiety disorder is a mental health condition in which a person is preoccupied and excessively worried about having an illness or getting an illness. Unlike somatic symptom disorder, a person with illness anxiety disorder usually doesn’t experience physical symptoms.
Conversion disorder (functional neurological symptom disorder) is a condition involving the function of your nervous system with no evidence of physical or neurological causes. This can cause symptoms that affect your perception, sensation or mobility.
While people with conversion disorder frequently experience depression or anxiety, excessive worrying and distress about the physical symptoms aren’t part of the diagnosis for conversion disorder. In contrast, excessive concern about physical symptoms is the main part of the diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder.
Somatic symptom disorder can occur in children, adolescents and adults, and it usually begins by age 30.
People assigned female at birth (AFAB) are 10 times more likely to have somatic symptom disorder than people assigned male at birth (AMAB).
Somatic symptom disorder is somewhat common and occurs in about 5% to 7% of the adult population.
Physical symptoms that people with SSD may have include:
The physical symptoms may be mild to severe, and there may be one or multiple symptoms. They may be due to a medical condition or have no clear cause.
How people think, feel and behave in response to these physical symptoms are the main signs of somatic symptom disorder. People with SSD may:
Researchers believe there are many biological, environmental and psychological factors that can contribute to the development of SSD, including:
Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam and probably order some laboratory tests to rule out conditions that may be causing your physical symptoms. They’ll also ask you about your health history.
If test results show that you don’t have a medical condition or illness or that your medical condition doesn’t match the severity of your symptoms, your healthcare provider may refer you to a mental health provider for assessment.
To be diagnosed, a person must have one or more symptoms that cause distress or disrupt daily life for at least six months. They must also have excessive thoughts, feelings or behaviors in response to the symptoms that meet at least one of the following criteria:
People with somatic symptom disorder may have a difficult time accepting that their concerns are excessive.
The goal of treating somatic symptom disorder is to manage physical symptoms, as well as psychological symptoms using psychotherapy (talk therapy) and sometimes medications that treat underlying anxiety and depression.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that helps people learn ways to change their patterns of thinking or behavior in order to change the way they feel. Under the guidance of a psychologist or psychiatrist, CBT helps people better cope with anxiety and stress and respond to situations more effectively.
If you have somatic symptom disorder, CBT can help you:
Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication, such as an antidepressant. In addition to helping mood, antidepressants have been reported to help ease such symptoms as pain, fatigue, pain in joints and sleep problems.
Studies have found certain risk factors associated with somatic symptom disorder. These risk factors include a history of:
Therapy may help people who are prone to SSD learn other ways of dealing with stress and triggers. This may help reduce the intensity of their symptoms.
The course of somatic symptom disorder is likely chronic (long-term), with episodes that come and go from several months to years.
Left untreated, somatic syndrome disorder can lead to:
The good news is that with treatment, most people can experience an improvement or remission in their symptoms.
If you’ve been diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder, taking the following steps will likely aid in your treatment:
It’s important to see your primary healthcare provider and/or mental health provider if you:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It’s important to remember that somatic symptom disorder (SSD) is a mental health condition. As with all mental health conditions, seeking help as soon as symptoms appear can help decrease the disruptions to your life. Mental health professionals can offer treatment plans that can help you manage your thoughts and behaviors.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/17/2022.
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