What is somatic symptom disorder?

Somatic symptom disorder is a disorder in which individuals feel excessively distressed about their health and also have abnormal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in response to their symptoms. There are different subtypes of the disorder based on the patient’s complaint. The disorder causes a disruption in the patient’s normal functioning and quality of life.

Although a person with somatic symptom disorder reports symptoms, the symptoms may have no medical explanation. Even when there is a medical cause, the person’s worry is out of proportion to the symptom. The distress causes the patient to visit multiple healthcare providers and to have many medical tests and unnecessary procedures.

How common is somatic symptom disorder?

Somatic symptom disorder occurs in about 5 to 7 percent of the adult population.

Who is affected by somatic symptom disorder?

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 then men. Somatic symptom disorder can appear in any age group.

What causes 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.

What are the symptoms of somatic symptom disorder?

Somatic symptom disorder symptoms include:

  • Pain. This is the most commonly reported symptom. Areas of reported pain can include chest, arms, legs, joints, back, abdomen, and other areas.
  • Neurological symptoms such as headaches, movement disorders, weakness, dizziness, fainting
  • Digestive symptoms such as abdominal pain or bowel problems, diarrhea, incontinence, and constipation
  • Sexual symptoms such as pain during sexual activity or painful periods

Usually, patients report experiencing more than one symptom. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Approximately 30 to 60 percent of patients with somatic symptom disorder also have anxiety and/or depression.

Who is at risk of developing 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

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