What is psychosomatic illness?

Psychosomatic is defined as concerning or involving both mind and body. Psychosomatic illnesses can be classified in three general types. The first type includes people who have both a mental (psychiatric) illness and a medical illness, and these illnesses complicate the symptoms and management of each other. The second type includes people who have a psychiatric problem that is a direct result of a medical illness or its treatment, such as having depression due to cancer and its treatment.

The third type of psychosomatic illness is somatoform disorders. Somatoform disorders are psychiatric disorders that are displayed through physical problems. In other words, the physical symptoms people experience are related to psychological factors rather than a medical cause.

Somatoform disorders are the focus of this article and include the following:

  • Body dysmorphic disorder is an obsession or preoccupation with a minor or imaginary flaw, such as wrinkles, small breasts, or the shape or size of other body parts. Body dysmorphic disorder causes severe anxiety and may impact a person’s ability to function normally in daily life.

  • Conversion disorder is a disorder in which a person experiences neurological symptoms that affect his or her movement and senses and that do not appear to have a physical cause. Symptoms can include seizures, blindness or paralysis.

  • Hypochondriasis is an obsession or fixation with the fear of having a serious disease. People with hypochondriasis misconstrue normal body functions or minor symptoms as being serious or life threatening. For example, a person with hypochondriasis may become convinced that he or she has colon cancer when having temporary flatulence after eating cabbage.

  • Somatization disorder is a disorder in which a person experiences physical complaints, such as headaches, diarrhea, or premature ejaculation, that do not have a physical cause.

The exact cause of somatoform disorders is not completely understood. Somatoform disorders are thought to be familial, meaning that genetics may play a role. Somatoform disorders may also be triggered by strong emotions, such as anxiety, grief, trauma, abuse, stress, depression, anger or guilt. People who suffer from somatoform disorders will generally not recognize the role these emotions play in their physical symptoms. However, they are not intentionally producing these physical symptoms or making up their physical problems. Their physical symptoms are real, but are caused by psychological factors.

Women are more likely than men to have a somatoform disorder. Symptoms usually begin before age 30 and persist for several years. The severity of the symptoms may vary from year to year, but there are rarely times when symptoms are not present. Examples of somatoform symptoms include digestive problems, headaches, pain, fatigue, menstrual problems, and sexual difficulties.

Currently, there is no cure for somatoform disorders. Treatment focuses on establishing a consistent and supportive relationship between the patient and his or her primary care doctor. Often, referral to a psychiatrist can help people with somatoform disorders manage their symptoms. While treatment can be difficult, people who suffer from somatoform disorders can lead normal lives even with continuing symptoms.

Somatoform disorders are generally not considered life-threatening conditions. However, they can lead to episodes of major depression and suicide attempts. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have or express any thoughts about hurting yourself or committing suicide.

Seek prompt medical care if you experience symptoms of mild to major depression, including sleep problems, persistent feelings of sadness or emptiness, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, constant fatigue, irritability, and loss of interest in activities or hobbies.


What are the symptoms of psychosomatic illness?

Somatoform disorders are the major forms of psychosomatic illness. The physical symptoms of somatoform disorders are real. However, they have psychological roots rather than physical causes. The symptoms often resemble symptoms of medical illnesses. As such, people suffering from somatoform disorders may undergo extensive testing and medical evaluations to determine the cause of their symptoms.... Read more about psychosomatic illness symptoms


What causes psychosomatic illness?

The exact cause of somatoform disorders, which are the major type of psychosomatic illness, is not known. Somatoform disorders tend to run in families and may have a genetic component. Somatoform disorders may be a coping strategy, a learned behavior, or the result of a personality characteristic. They may also be linked to problems with nerve impulses that carry false signals to the brain. Whi... Read more about psychosomatic illness causes


How is psychosomatic illness treated?

Treatment of somatoform disorders, which make up the majority of psychosomatic illnesses, can be challenging. After ruling out physical causes of your symptoms, it generally focuses on establishing a trusting, supportive relationship between you and your primary care doctor. Your doctor will recommend regular checkup appointments as one of the most important parts of your treatment.

... Read more about psychosomatic illness treatments

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 20, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Mental Health and Behavior