Somatic symptom disorder is tricky to define. It has gone by other names in the past, including somatoform disorder and somatization disorder. The fact is, this disorder is actually a group of mental illnesses with similar symptoms.

People with a somatic symptom disorder have a mental condition that manifests in physical symptoms that seem like an illness or injury, but cannot be explained medically. Often, it results in pain, weakness, indigestion or abnormal heart rates that cannot be diagnosed by medical tests.

Since the definition of somatic symptom disorder has changed recently, research on the condition is still limited. However, the latest statistics show it may be more common than one might think. Greater awareness is essential for people with the disease to find the help they need.

Prevalence of Somatic Symptom Disorder

Somatic symptom disorders are relatively common, affecting about 5–7% of the population of the United States. It can affect children, teenagers and adults. Its prevalence is far higher in women than in men, and the female to male ratio of patients is about 10:1.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s guidebook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the diagnostic criteria for somatic symptom disorder are:

  • One or more somatic symptoms that are distressing or significantly disrupt daily life
  • Excessive thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to somatic symptoms
  • Specific symptoms may increase or decrease in severity, but at least one symptom is still present at any given time

There is not one clear cause of somatic symptom disorder. Many, but not all, people with the condition are survivors of childhood trauma, abuse or neglect. Other sources of emotional distress may play a role.

Diagnosing Somatic Symptom Disorder

Patients with somatic symptom disorder tend to continually worry about a specific physical symptom or set of symptoms. These symptoms are not caused by an underlying medical condition aside from extreme stress and are often detrimental enough to interfere with normal activities and daily life. Unlike Munchausen’s syndrome, these symptoms are not inflicted intentionally by the patient.

Rates of Somatic Symptom Disorder and Co-Occurring Conditions

People who are diagnosed with a somatic symptom disorder are also more likely than others to be diagnosed with another mental illness. Often, the stress that comes from these illnesses can cause physical symptoms to appear.

Mental health issues that commonly co-occur alongside somatic symptom disorder include:

Physical Conditions Related to Somatic Symptom Disorder

Mental illness can lead to physical complications. Often, if untreated, the physical symptoms that accompany somatic symptom disorder can turn into chronic illnesses themselves.

Some examples of chronic illnesses that commonly occur in people with a somatic symptom disorder include:

  • Memory loss
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Deafness
  • Joint pain, stiffness or other problem
  • Gastrointestinal illness

Cost of Somatic Symptom Disorder

A somatic symptom disorder can be expensive. Bills for medical examinations and laboratory tests add up as doctors try and fail to find an underlying cause. In the United Kingdom, a study found the median cost for medical tests for patients with a somatic symptom disorder was £286, or $500, but could range from £25–£2300, or $40–$4025. However, this study was conducted in 1991, so the actual cost of medical testing is likely much higher today. Also, these only include medical tests and not the cost of psychological treatments for the disorder.

Somatic Symptom Disorder Prognosis

Somatic symptom disorder is a chronic illness that can take years to resolve. However, with proper treatment, the disorder can be successfully managed.

Statistics on Somatic Symptom Disorder Treatment

The primary type of treatment for somatic symptom disorder is psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based therapy are two effective methods that can help patients successfully cope with the disorder. Coping skills are essential for managing the disorder because up to 90% of cases last longer than five years. For long-term treatment success, it’s also important to address any co-occurring disorders that may be present.

Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other antidepressants help control the anxiety that causes physical symptoms. Relaxing herbs, like St. John’s Wort, can also be helpful. Rehabilitation therapy may also be necessary to alleviate co-occurring substance use disorders.

Many people who struggle with somatic symptom disorder are also dealing with an alcohol or drug addiction. The good news is that help is available. If you are struggling with a substance use disorder and somatic symptom disorder, reach out to The Recovery Village to learn how we can help.

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