Many myths and misconceptions surround people with somatic symptom disorder (SSD). Often, the symptoms they are experiencing are said to be “all in their head.” Others may say that people with the condition are overreacting to something minor. The truth is, SSD is real and can cause a significant amount of distress and disruption to the lives of those affected by it.
Understanding somatic symptom disorder can help people with the condition find treatment that can ease their symptoms. To do so, it is important to distinguish between the facts and the myths about this mental illness.
Myth #1: Somatic symptom disorder is uncommon in children
Fact: SSD is relatively common in children.
Somatic symptoms are actually relatively common in pediatric populations. The age of onset for these conditions is variable, and symptoms can develop during childhood, adolescence or adulthood. It usually begins by the age of 30. In children, somatic symptom disorder can cause them to miss school. Parents of children with somatic symptom disorder can likewise become distressed because their child is suffering symptoms seemingly without a cause or cure.
Myth #2: Individuals with SSD cannot be taken seriously
Fact: Somatic symptom disorder is a real condition with real consequences and should be taken seriously.
Somatic symptoms can be just as debilitating as those caused by physical diseases and cause significant disruptions to a person’s daily life. People with somatic symptom disorder are often judged by others, including doctors, for “overreacting” to “imaginary” symptoms. However, the distress these symptoms cause is very real. Like other disorders, SSD can respond well to proper treatment.
A common misconception is that people with somatic symptom disorder are simply making up their symptoms to receive attention or extra medical care. This may be the case in certain conditions like a factitious disorder (previously known as Munchausen syndrome), but not with SSD. Patients with somatic symptom disorder truly do experience their symptoms, which may have a negative impact on their ability to perform tasks or participate in certain activities.
Myth #3: Unexplained symptoms are enough for a diagnosis
Fact: An extreme emotional reaction to physical symptoms is necessary for a diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder.
Unexplained symptoms are often just that: symptoms for which a diagnosis has not been made yet. For a patient to be diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder, there needs to be a psychological element. People with SSD develop fears and anxieties related to their symptoms, often out of proportion to the severity of their symptoms.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists these diagnostic criteria for somatic symptom disorder:
- One or more somatic symptoms that are distressing or result in significant disruption of daily life
- Excessive thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to somatic symptoms or associated health concerns
- Though different symptoms may come and go, the state of being symptomatic lasts at least six months
Myth #4: Pain is the only symptom of somatic symptom disorder
Fact: Somatic symptom disorder can involve many symptoms besides pain, such as fatigue or shortness of breath.
Pain is one of the most common symptoms experienced in somatic symptom disorder. People with somatic symptom disorder may feel pain in virtually any part of their body. Common pains may include, but are not limited to:
- Back pain
- Chest pain
- Pain in the arms or legs
- Joint pain
- Stomach cramps
However, pain is not the only symptom that can occur. People with somatic symptom disorder can experience a number of different symptoms, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle spasms
- Loss of voice
- Difficulty moving
- Numbness or tingling
- Rapid heart rate
- Sleep problems
Myth #5: Medication is the primary treatment option for somatic symptom disorder
Fact: The primary treatment option for somatic symptoms disorder is psychotherapy.
Treatment for somatic symptom disorder usually consists of some form of psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based therapy can help patients learn to manage their symptoms. It is important for them to learn effective coping skills to handle symptoms in a healthy way. Patients may learn to recognize and avoid stressors that trigger their symptoms or learn strategies to worry less about symptoms when they do occur.
Somatic symptom disorder often co-occurs with other conditions such as depression or anxiety. Treatment plans must address these disorders as well to control symptoms that arise because of them. Antidepressants, mainly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are helpful for addressing the stress that often is the cause of symptoms. Relaxing herbs such as lavender or St. John’s Wort can also be effective.
Many people with a somatic symptom disorder also live with and an alcohol or drug use disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with co-occurring somatic symptom disorder and addiction, specialized help is available. Contact The Recovery Village today to learn what resources are available to you.
Malas N, Ortiz-Aguayo R, Giles L, Ibeziako P. “Pediatric Somatic Symptom Disorders.” Current Psychiatry Reports, February 2017. Accessed May 27, 2019. Robitz, R. “What is Somatic Symptom Disorder?” American Psychiatric Association, November 2018. Accessed May 27, 2019. Kurlansik SL, Maffei MS. “Somatic Symptom Disorder.” American Family Physician, January 1, 2016. Accessed May 27, 2019. Ruthven, DF. “Factitious Disorder.” Johns Hopkins Psychiatry Guide, May 2, 2017. Accessed May 28, 2019. American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” May 2013. Accessed April 20, 2019.
Malas N, Ortiz-Aguayo R, Giles L, Ibeziako P. “Pediatric Somatic Symptom Disorders.” Current Psychiatry Reports, February 2017. Accessed May 27, 2019.
Robitz, R. “What is Somatic Symptom Disorder?” American Psychiatric Association, November 2018. Accessed May 27, 2019.
Kurlansik SL, Maffei MS. “Somatic Symptom Disorder.” American Family Physician, January 1, 2016. Accessed May 27, 2019.
Ruthven, DF. “Factitious Disorder.” Johns Hopkins Psychiatry Guide, May 2, 2017. Accessed May 28, 2019.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” May 2013. Accessed April 20, 2019.