Somatoform disorders, sometimes called somatic symptom disorders or somatization, are some of the least-understood conditions in the medical community. Characterized by undiagnosed symptoms, predominantly pain, these disorders also bring significant emotional distress to those affected. The good news is that treatment can provide effective ways of coping and pave the way for an improved quality of life.

What Are Somatoform Disorders?

Somatoform disorders are exemplified by physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue with no underlying physiological or neurological explanation. Regardless of whether the origin of a person's pain and fatigue is mental or physical, determining a cause can lead to significant distress. Most medical professionals agree that, regardless of the symptoms' genesis, the pain is real.

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What Causes Somatoform Disorders?

The causes of somatoform disorders are not entirely clear. According to the Mayo Clinic, genetic and biological factors may play a role, with some people predisposed to increased sensitivity to pain. Other possible factors include family influence (genetic or environmental), an individual's perception of illness and physical symptoms, decreased awareness of or inability to process emotions, and learned behaviors.

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What Are the Symptoms of Somatoform Disorders?

Symptoms of somatoform disorders can be vague or quite specific and range from mild, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, and weakness, to more debilitating complaints, including shortness of breath and even paralysis. People with somatoform disorders may become excessively focused on their symptoms, which can also include back pain, chest discomfort, irregular periods in women, and erectile dysfunction in men. Many affected individuals report multiple symptoms over a period of years, often involving different parts of the body.

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How Are Somatoform Disorders Diagnosed?

There are no specific tests to diagnose somatoform disorders, although doctors may use laboratory testing and other diagnostic measures to rule out underlying physiological causes. A doctor may also test for medical disorders that can mimic somatoform disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. People with undiagnosed pain or other symptoms may find it valuable to consult a reputable mental health professional for additional evaluation.

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What Are Some of the Risk Factors for Developing a Somatoform Disorder?

Among the risk factors for developing a somatoform disorder are a history of anxiety or depression, trauma or violence, a serious illness in the family, or other stressful life events. Other risk factors include having an existing medical condition, being in a failing relationship, or having a lower income or socioeconomic status.

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Are Somatoform Disorders Preventable?

Experts do not know much about the prevention of somatoform disorders. However, taking certain measures can lower the risk of developing a related condition. Those who experience anxiety or depression should seek professional counseling as soon as possible. While stress is an unavoidable part of life, learning about its causes, how it affects the body, and how to manage it is a good course of action for anyone concerned about somatoform disorders. Ultimately, early and correct diagnosis goes a long way toward helping people.

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What Are Some of the Challenges of Somatoform Disorders?

People with somatoform disorders may experience challenges in daily living, including social difficulties, financial stresses, work-related issues, and difficulties in personal relationships. They may also experience other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as an increased risk of suicide related to depression.

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Could My Child Have a Somatoform Disorder?

Healthy children often report stomachaches or headaches when experiencing emotional distress. These symptoms usually disappear on their own and do not generally affect the child's well-being. If in doubt, always consult a medical professional. A doctor can explore potential underlying physical causes for a child's symptoms.

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When Should I See a Doctor?

If you are experiencing physical symptoms, your primary care doctor or other trusted medical professional can help you determine the cause and recommend the appropriate treatment. If your doctor suspects a somatoform disorder, they can refer you to a mental health professional for additional evaluation and treatment options.

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How Are Somatoform Disorders Treated?

The most widely used treatment for somatoform disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people gain control of their situations and find ways to break what is often a self-fulfilling cycle of pain. Specific therapeutic techniques used in treatment include problem-solving training, visualization exercises, relaxation techniques, exercise, therapeutic breathing, and biofeedback. The practitioner may prescribe antidepressants. Psychotherapy may also be useful, either as a standalone therapy or in conjunction with other treatment, to help individuals understand and resolve emotional issues at the root of the disorder.

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