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What Is It?

A person with somatization disorder is chronically preoccupied with numerous "somatic" (physical) symptoms over many years. These symptoms, however, cannot be explained fully by a non-psychiatric diagnosis. Nonetheless, the symptoms cause significant distress or impair the person's ability to function.

The person is not "faking." Somatization disorder is a medical problem. The disorder, however, is probably related to brain functioning or emotional regulation rather than the area of the body that has become the focus of the patient's attention. The symptoms are real and are not under the person's conscious control.

People with somatization disorder report multiple medical problems over many years, involving several different areas of the body. For example, the same person might have back pain, headaches, chest discomfort, and stomach or urinary distress. Women often report irregular periods. Men may report erectile dysfunction (impotence). The person may:

  • Describe symptoms in dramatic and emotional terms

  • Seek care from more than one physician at the same time

  • Describe symptoms in vague terms

  • Lack signs of defined medical illness

  • Have complaints that medical tests fail to support

People with somatization disorder do get diagnosable medical illnesses, too, so doctors must be careful not to dismiss symptoms too easily.

A person with somatization disorder also may have symptoms of anxiety and depression. He or she may begin to feel hopeless and attempt suicide, or may have trouble adapting to the stresses of life. The person may abuse alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications.

Spouses and other family members may become distressed because the person's symptoms continue for long periods of time and no medical treatment seems to help.

Symptoms of somatization disorder vary by culture, sometimes depending on how illness or "sick roles" are viewed in a given culture. Cultural factors also affect the proportions of men and women with the disorder.

Female relatives of people with somatization disorder are more likely to develop the disorder. Male relatives are more likely to develop alcoholism and personality disorder.

Scientists do not know the cause of the symptoms reported by people with somatization disorder, but researchers have some theories. It is possible, for example, that people with this disorder perceive bodily sensations in an unusual way. Or they may describe feelings in physical (rather than mental or emotional) terms. Trauma or stress may cause a person's physical sensations to change.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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