Sometimes a mental illness first presents itself in the form of physical symptoms. Mental health professionals use the label of Somatoform Disorder to all psychological distress that manifests in a physical way, after all known physical reasons for the symptoms have been ruled out. Some subtypes of this disorder occurs before the age of 30, but most Somatoform Disorders develop during middle age, somewhere between the ages of 30 and 40. Females are slightly more likely to be affected by this disorder than males.
What is a Somatoform Disorder?
When a patient complains about physical symptoms for which no tests have been able to give supporting evidence, doctors may guardedly consider this diagnosis. Psychological experts have documented at least five different subtypes of somatoform disorders. They are: Body Dysmorphic Disorders, Eating Disorders, Hypochondriasis, Somatization, and Somatoform Pain.
Symptoms of a Somatoform Disorder
Persons with Somatoform Disorders may complain of one or more of the following symptoms:
- Gastrointestinal difficulties.
- Sexual problems.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Lack of appetite.
- Double vision.
- Problems involving the urinary tract or genitalia.
- Aches in the head, back, muscles, or joints.
- Excessive concern over blemishes, insect bites, hair loss, or the shape of body parts.
- Partial paralysis.
- Menstrual problems.
- Voice or swallowing difficulties.
Because symptoms of Somatoform Disorder subtypes vary widely, the psychiatric community has established guidelines to help doctors in making this diagnosis. Before a physician should consider a Somatoform Diagnosis, the patient must meet these three criteria:
- All other medical conditions, substance abuse problems, or mental illness that could possibly cause the patient’s symptoms have been ruled out as a cause.
- The patient does not fit the profile established for malingering (conscious fabrication of symptoms) or factitious disorder (unconscious fabrication of symptoms), which must both be completely ruled out before a definitive diagnosis of Somatoform Disorder may be given.
- The symptoms are disruptive enough to cause the patient difficulty in at least one area of his or her life, whether at work or in social situations, and the patient finds the symptoms truly distressing.
Causes of Somatoform Disorders
Some people are at greater risk of developing a Somatoform Disorder. These include people who have a family history of these disorders, and those with a history of Depression or other major psychological illnesses. Researchers theorize that other factors may play a role in the development of these conditions:
- Some patients may develop physical symptoms to avoid the stigma of being diagnosed with a psychological illness.
- Some patients may have a lower pain threshold than normal may become hyper-aware of, and worried about, uncomfortable sensations within their bodies.
- Some patients may learn or develop more negative or pessimistic ideas and greater fears relating to physical changes or indicators of disease within the body.
Researchers have also found a connection between abnormal levels of serotonin, a chemical that is produced in the brain to transmit nerve impulses, and the onset of this disorder. Psychosocial causes may also play a role in the development of Somatoform Disorder. The unrealistic body images displayed by the media may distort attitudes about minor physical imperfections and may compel men and women to seek unrealistic bodily proportions
Subtypes of Somatoform Disorder
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Occurring more often in teens and young adults, this condition characterizes patients who begin to focus excessively on real or imagined physical flaws on their face or on another specific body part. The patient spends so much time agonizing over the imperfection that he or she is unable to function effectively at school or work or during social activities. Some patients with Body Dysmorphic Disorder are focused upon plastic surgery to erase or reform the perceived bodily defect.
This subtype includes Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and binge eating. All of these eating disorders involve unhealthy attitudes, emotions, and actions involving the consumption of food. Both psychological and biological factors may play a role in the development of Eating Disorders.
People with this condition often feel that transient minor symptoms are indicative of more serious issues. For example, a sore throat may lead to outsized fears of thyroid cancer. People with this illness generally have a history of repeated doctor’s or emergency room visits that result in no detection of illness and no resolution of the physical symptoms.
Patients with this diagnosis experience pain or abnormalities in four separate areas of the body or in four different body functions. The term actually refers to a patient’s tendency to experience their difficult emotions as physical ailments. Patients are generally so distressed that they go from one doctor to another seeking relief from their symptoms and often end up taking a great number of prescription medications as a result.
Somatoform Pain Disorder
This chronic condition often manifests during the teenage years. Patients suffer pain for which doctors can find no medical cause and for which prescription pain medications seem to give no relief.
Treatment Options for Somatoform Disorders
Years of research have led to several good treatment options for most of the subtypes of this psychosomatic illness. Each patient requires a treatment plan created specifically for his or her diagnosis, but the following are often used either singularly or in combination to aid recovery:
Medications: The prescription drugs most commonly used for somatoform disorders are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These include generic drugs such as sertraline, fluoxetine, paroxetine, and fluvoxamine.
Cognitive Psychotherapy: This type of therapy is often successful in helping patients recognize their erroneous perceptions of themselves. Therapists then help sufferers to work through their misperceptions about their body image or physical health through cognitive restructuring. Relaxation techniques may also be taught to help patients cope with anxiety or frustration during the cognitive restructuring process.
Alternative Choices: Some patients with somatoform disorders respond well to yoga and deep breathing techniques. Others do well in a graduated, professionally directed exercise program. Some even find that aromatherapy calms their nerves and makes treatment easier. These alternatives are almost always used in addition to other medical and psychological interventions.
Somatoform Disorders FAQ
The following questions often arise after a patient has been diagnosed with a somatoform disorder:
What is the length of treatment for Somatoform Disorders?
Most doctors agree that a patient must battle these disorders for a lifetime, so the emphasis is on function and managing the symptoms over the course of the lifespan, rather than curing the patient. Although treatment may be extensive in the beginning, once a patient is stable and well on the way to functioning fully, physicians may set up short regular follow-up appointments to provide reassurance and ensure adequate health monitoring.
How common are Somatoform Disorders in the general population?
Statistics show that somatization disorder occurs in about 0.1% to 0.5% of people while hypochondriasis may affect almost 10% of the patients that doctors see regularly. From 10% to 30% of children and adolescents have reported pain in the head or stomach for which doctors have been unable to establish a medical cause. One study of hospital patients put the incidence of all Somatoform Disorders at approximately 16.1%.
What other psychological problems may develop when Somatoform Disorders are left untreated?
Besides the physical harm that may occur when eating disorders are left untreated, people with Somatoform Disorders must often deal with Depression and Anxiety as well. Some even become suicidal after years of dealing with the pain so effective treatment is vital.
Why People Should Choose Bridges to Recovery for Somatoform Disorder Residential Treatment
By the time most people seek treatment for any of the subtypes of a Somatoform Disorder, they are in need of intensive therapeutic attention. Bridges to Recovery Residential Treatment Centers offer both the physical and psychological care needed in a place where patients feel relaxed and secure. The doctors and therapists at Bridges keep up with the latest research and offer treatment protocol that is on the cutting edge.
Bridges to Recovery has a history of considerable effectiveness in helping patients struggling with Somatoform Disorders. Our highly trained staff believes that each patient is important and should be treated with dignity and compassion.