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Psychosomatic illness Part 1

Posted by Eamonn Brady on

Psychosomatic means mind (psyche) and body (soma) and can have both mental and physical aspects.


Psychosomatic related conditions can be separated into three classes.

Class1: those with both a mental and medical illness. Both illnesses complicate the symptoms and management of each other.


Class 2: those with a mental issue as a direct result of a medical illness or its treatment, i.e. depression brought on by having cancer and subsequent treatment.


Class 3, the most prevalent type of psychosomatic related condition is somatoform disorders. These are a group of mental or psychiatric disorders manifested as physical problems or feelings of illness with no apparent, identifiable medical issue. To put another way, the physical symptoms experienced are related to psychological factors as opposed to anything identifiably medical.


Somatoform disorder are more common in females. Onset is usually before age 30. Common somatoform symptoms include digestive problems, headaches, pain, fatigue, menstrual problems, and sexual difficulties.


The exact cause isn’t known. Family history / genetic predisposition may be a contributing factor. Somatoform disorders may be triggered by strong emotions, situations or events, such as anxiety, grief, trauma, abuse, stress, depression, anger or guilt. Despite what anyone thinks, they are not intentionally producing physical symptoms or making up physical problems. These are real, but caused by psychological factors.


In the main, there are four main types: -

Body dysmorphic disorder is an individual’s obsession or fixation with a minor or imaginary physical flaw, or with the shape or size of their body parts, leading to severe anxiety impacting negatively on ability to function normally.


Conversion disorder: a condition where a person experiences neurological symptoms that affect their movement and senses not attributable to any physical cause. They may feel they’ve lost the use of a body part, however, no medical or physical reason can explain it. Conversion disorder can produce symptoms as debilitating as seizures, blindness or paralysis.


Hypochondriasis: a preoccupation with the fear of having a serious disease. Sufferers misinterpret normal body functions or minor symptoms as being those of a more serious illness or even, life threatening. For example, a person with hypochondriasis may become convinced that they have colon cancer whilst experiencing a bout of temporary flatulence after eating cabbage.


Somatisation disorder:a disorder where a person experiences physical complaints, with no apparent physical cause (e.g.)  headaches, diarrhoea, or premature ejaculation. A person may have a history of medical complaints with no organic foundation.


In the main, somatoform disorders are not considered life-threatening. With the right support and treatment pathway, sufferers can lead normal lives even whilst living with ongoing symptoms. That said, there is currently no cure and treatment can be difficult. The key to a successful outcome is based on the establishment of a consistent and relationship between the patient and their healthcare professional, in most cases in Ireland, their GP. In many cases, the GP will refer the patient to a mental health specialist such as a psychiatrist to help better manage their symptoms.


To be continued….next week


Disclaimer: Please ensure you consult with your healthcare professional before making any changes recommended

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