Somatoform disorders are a group of psychological conditions where an individual endures physical symptoms, sensations and bodily pain that are not precipitated by an underlying medical, mental or neurological disorder. These physical symptoms cause distress and considerable impairment in daily functioning.

In some cases, these physical symptoms may be linked to substance use disorders. Other people may begin to use drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms of a somatoform disorder. While there is limited research regarding an association between somatoform disorders and substance abuse, several studies have proposed that there is a correlation between the two.

Effects of Drug Use on Somatoform Disorders

Alcohol and marijuana are the most widely used substances among individuals with somatoform disorders, as they can alleviate some of the pain, anxiety and physical symptoms that result from somatoform disorders. Opioids are commonly used in people with pain disorders, which increase the risk of dependence and tolerance. These medications can trigger hypersensitivity to pain and exacerbate the symptoms of a somatoform disorder. Marijuana and alcohol tend to intensify the sedative impact of antidepressants and benzodiazepines, which are both also commonly prescribed to treat the symptoms of underlying causes of somatoform disorders.

Symptoms of intoxication tend to overlap with the symptoms of somatoform disorders, including anxiety, depression, disrupted sleeping patterns and agitation. This overlap can pose a problem in somatoform disorder diagnosis, as it can be difficult to delineate which symptoms are caused by which condition. Side effects and withdrawal symptoms of drug use, like gastrointestinal issues, weakened coordination, hallucinations and sexual problems, can magnify pre-existing symptoms of a somatoform disorder.  

Statistics on Somatoform Disorders and Addiction

Currently, there are few statistics available that examine the relationship between somatoform disorder and addiction. A U.S. Epidemiologic Catchment Area study found that somatization symptoms were weakly associated with substance abuse symptoms compared to symptoms of major depression and anxiety. Additional research also showed that symptoms of antisocial behaviors, substance usage, and somatization in parents were linked to higher rates of somatization in children.

Can Somatoform Disorders Lead to Drug Abuse?

The pain and aversive physical symptoms of a somatoform disorder may drive a person to abuse alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription medications. During the diagnostic process, a medical professional may try to alleviate an individual’s somatic complaints with opioids or benzodiazepines while they attempt to arrive at a diagnosis. Access to these medications can increase a person’s risk of substance dependence, and the chronic nature of somatoform disorders and continued use may result in addiction.

Treating Somatoform Disorders and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders

To obtain successful treatment outcomes, somatoform disorders and co-occurring substance use disorders need to be treated simultaneously. Comprehensive somatoform disorder treatment needs to address symptoms from both the somatoform disorder and from the substance use disorder.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse and a co-occurring somatoform disorder, please consider contacting The Recovery Village. Mental health practitioners who are trained in dual diagnosis can assist in finding the right treatment program for you or your loved one.

    

Hasin, Deborah. “Somatoform and Substance Use Disorders.” Psychosomatic Medicine, 2007. Accessed March 31, 2019.

National Drug Strategy. “Ten Somatoform Disorders and Substance Use.”  Accessed March 31, 2019.

National Center for Biotechnology Information. “Somatoform and Substance Use Disorders.” December 2007. Accessed March 31, 2019.

National Center for Biotechnology Information. “Somatization and psychiatric disorder in the NIMH Epidemiologic Catchment Area study.” November 1991.  Accessed March 31, 2019.