Somatization disorder

Somatization disorder is a mysterious, chronic disorder in which a person has physical symptoms in one or more parts of their body, but no physical cause can be found. It is thought that perhaps psychological problems are expressing themselves physically in those affected. Somatization disorder is not an imagined or fictitious disorder as associated with conditions like malingering; rather, the symptoms are very real, and the pain felt by the patient is real as well. The disorder used to be dismissed as something made up in the patient’s head, or a form of hysteria. We know today that this is an unfair and incorrect assessment of the disorder.

Symptoms of Somatization Disorder

  • Complaint of chronic body pain, usually in the digestive, nervous and reproductive systems
  • Symptoms are worsened with stress
  • Gastrointestinal complaints like nausea, bloating and diarrhea (at least two gastrointestinal symptoms are required for diagnosis)
  • Reproductive problems such as painful intercourse or erectile dysfunction (reproductive system symptoms are also required for diagnosis)
  • Headaches, body aches, urinary retention
  • At least one symptom must be neurological, like seizing, to be diagnosed as well
  • Coordination and balance problems

What Causes Somatization Disorder?

Somatization disorder is a much-debated topic, as far as causes go. Causes aren’t known for sure, but there are three main theories. The first and most commonly suggested possible cause is that somatization disorder is a defense against psychological stress. In other words, the body expresses psychological distress through physical symptoms instead of psychological ones. This is often associated with increased emotional stress as well, which may be where the old “hysteria” theory came from. The next theory is that a person with somatization disorder has a hypersensitive response to changes in the body. Under this theory, small discomforts or changes in the body that aren’t normally registered in the average person’s brain are magnified in the somatization disorder sufferer’s body. The last theory is that the person suffering from somatization disorder has created the symptoms with their own negative, catastrophic way of thinking. Basically, the patient turns a molehill into a mountain (a headache into a brain tumor, for example) and makes their symptoms seem much worse or more serious than they actually are. Nobody knows exactly what causes somatization disorder, but it’s apparent that the symptoms and complaints are very real, and not made up for any purpose.

Treatment for Somatization Disorder

Treatment is usually most effective with the dual support of your regular health care provider and a psychologist. Keeping a supportive and positive relationship with a health care provider that you trust is key to a successful recovery. Normally, a person with somatization disorder is treated effectively when their doctor and psychologist work together. Seeing a psychologist is vital because there could be a lot of suppressed stress or other issues that need to be relieved mentally. This should help with the physical symptoms, as combined with help from your doctor.

What Should You Do?

People with somatization disorders often make frequent doctor visits, and subsequently have many tests and procedures performed. It’s best to keep a relationship with one primary doctor instead of jumping around from doctor to doctor. The best thing to do is to create a relationship that is optimal for you between you, your doctor, and your psychologist. With the combined effort of all three, your symptoms should begin to relieve themselves as you work toward a healthier future mentally, physically, emotionally and psychologically.

View Resources

  • Wikipedia – Wikipedia page with information about somatization disorder, along with diagnosis criteria and cause theory.
  • Medline Plus – Medline plus page for somatization disorder, including symptoms, and treatment information.
  • University of Maryland Medical Center – Webpage with info about causes and risk factors for somatization disorder.

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