Somatic symptom disorder

Definition

Somatic symptom disorder (SSD) occurs when a person feels extreme, exaggerated anxiety about physical symptoms. The person has such intense thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the symptoms, that they feel they cannot do some of the activities of daily life. They may believe routine medical problems are life threatening. This anxiety may not improve despite normal test results and reassurance from the health care provider.

A person with SSD is not faking their symptoms. The pain and other problems are real. They may be caused by a medical problem. Often, no physical cause can be found. However, it is the extreme reaction and behaviors about the symptoms that are the main problem.

Causes

SSD usually begins before age 30. It occurs more often in women than in men. It's not clear why some people develop this condition. Certain factors may be involved:

People who have a history of physical or sexual abuse may be more likely to have this disorder. But not everyone with SSD has a history of abuse.

SSD is similar to illness anxiety disorder (hypochondria). This is when people are overly anxious about becoming sick or developing a serious disease. They fully expect they will become very ill at some point. Unlike SSD, with illness anxiety disorder, there are few or no actual physical symptoms.

Symptoms

Physical symptoms that can occur with SSD may include:

Symptoms may be mild to severe. There may be one or more symptoms. They may come and go or change. Symptoms may be due to a medical condition but they also may have no clear cause.

How people feel and behave in response to these physical sensations are the main symptoms of SSD. These reactions must persist for 6 months or more. People with SSD may:

Exams and Tests

You will have a complete physical exam. Your provider may do certain tests to find any physical causes. The types of tests that are done depend on what symptoms you have.

Your provider may refer you to a mental health provider. The mental health provider may do further testing.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to control your symptoms and help you function in life.

Having a supportive relationship with your provider is vital for your treatment.

You may also see a mental health provider (therapist). It's important to see a therapist who has experience treating SSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that can help treat SSD. Working with a therapist can help relieve your pain and other symptoms. During therapy, you will learn to:

Your therapist will also treat depression or other mental health illnesses you may have. You may take antidepressants to help relieve anxiety and depression.

You should not be told that your symptoms are imaginary or all in your head. Your provider should work with you to manage both physical and emotional symptoms.

Possible Complications

If not treated, you may have:

SSD is a long-term (chronic) condition. Working with your providers and following your treatment plan is important for managing with this disorder.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

You should contact your provider if you:

Prevention

Counseling may help people who are prone to SSD learn other ways of dealing with stress. This may help reduce the intensity of symptoms.


Review Date: 2/24/2019
Reviewed By: Ryan James Kimmel, MD, Medical Director of Hospital Psychiatry at the University of Washington Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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