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Somatoform Disorders

What is it?

Somatoform disorders are characterised by repetitive manifestation of physical symptoms and persistent requests for medical investigations, despite multiple negative findings and assurances from doctors that the symptoms lack a physical basis. 

Even if there are concurrent physical conditions, they fail to account for the nature, extent, distress, and preoccupation associated with the patient’s symptoms.

These disorders often involve a certain level of attention-seeking behaviour, particularly in patients who feel frustrated by their inability to convince doctors of the primarily physical nature of their illness and the necessity for further examinations or investigations.

The somatoform disorders encompass various conditions, including somatization disorder, undifferentiated somatoform disorder, hypochondriacal disorder, somatoform autonomic dysfunction, persistent somatoform pain disorder, and other related disorders.

Types and Symptoms

Somatization Disorder : The primary characteristics of this condition are the presence of multiple, recurrent, and frequently changing physical symptoms that typically persist for several years before the patient seeks psychiatric evaluation. 

Patients often have a complex medical history involving interactions with both primary care and specialised medical services, during which numerous negative investigations or ineffective surgeries may have been conducted. 

Symptoms can manifest in any part or system of the body, although gastrointestinal sensations and abnormal skin sensations with discoloration are among the most commonly reported. Complaints related to sexual and menstrual issues are also prevalent. Marked depression and anxiety often coexist with the physical symptoms. 

The course of the disorder is typically chronic and fluctuating, and it often leads to long standing disruption in social, interpersonal, and family behaviours. This disorder is more prevalent in women than in men and usually begins in early adulthood.


Undifferentiated Somatoform Disorder : When an individual presents with persistent and varied physical complaints but does not fully meet the comprehensive and characteristic clinical criteria for somatization disorder, this category should be taken into consideration.


Hypochondriacal Disorder : The key characteristic of this condition is an enduring preoccupation with the possibility of having one or more severe and progressive physical disorders. Individuals affected by this disorder experience an irrational fear that they are suffering from a serious medical condition or are at a high risk of developing one. 

They may misinterpret normal bodily functions as indications of illness. Even when medical tests confirm the absence of any medical problems, individuals with hypochondriasis remain fixated on the belief that they are seriously unwell. Their persistent health concerns can have a detrimental impact on their relationships, careers, and overall quality of life. 

Marked depression and anxiety often accompany this disorder. It is uncommon for this condition to first emerge after the age of 50, and the course of symptoms and impairment is typically chronic and characterised by fluctuations. Hypochondriasis can affect both men and women.


Somatoform Autonomic Dysfunction : The patient presents symptoms that mimic those of a physical disorder affecting a system or organ primarily regulated by autonomic innervation and control, such as the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, or respiratory system. 

These symptoms typically fall into two categories, neither of which indicates an actual physical disorder of the organ or system in question.The first type, which is crucial for making this diagnosis, involves complaints based on objective signs of autonomic arousal, such as palpitations, sweating, flushing, and tremors. 

The second type is characterised by more subjective and nonspecific symptoms that are idiosyncratic to the individual. These symptoms can include fleeting aches and pains, burning sensations, feelings of heaviness or tightness, and sensations of bloating or distension. The patient tends to attribute these sensations to a specific organ or system in their body.


Persistent Somatoform Pain Disorder : The primary complaint revolves around the presence of persistent, severe, and distressing pain that cannot be adequately accounted for by a physiological process or physical disorder. 

This pain is often linked to emotional conflicts or psychosocial issues that can be identified as significant causal factors. As a consequence, there is typically a notable escalation in support and attention, whether it be personal or medical, received by the individual experiencing the pain.


Other Somatoform Disorders : In these disorders, the reported complaints are not influenced by the autonomic nervous system and are confined to specific systems or body parts. 

This category also encompasses any other sensations that are not attributable to physical disorders but are closely linked in time to stressful events or difficulties. Additionally, it includes sensations that lead to a significant increase in attention received by the patient, whether it is personal or medical in nature. 

Common examples of such sensations include feelings of swelling, sensations of movement on the skin, and paraesthesias (tingling and/or numbness).


The causes of somatoform disorders are multifactorial and involve a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. Here are some potential contributing factors :

  • Biological Factors : There may be a genetic predisposition to somatoform disorders, as certain individuals may be more vulnerable to developing these conditions due to genetic factors. Neurochemical imbalances and alterations in the functioning of the central nervous system may also play a role.
  • Psychological Factors : Psychological factors, such as personality traits and coping mechanisms, can contribute to the development of somatoform disorders. Individuals with a tendency to experience high levels of anxiety, have difficulty expressing emotions, or possess a heightened focus on physical sensations may be more susceptible.
  • Childhood Experiences : Adverse childhood experiences, including trauma, neglect, or abuse, can increase the risk of developing somatoform disorders. These early life experiences may influence the individual’s perception of bodily sensations and their ability to cope with stress.
  • Cognitive Factors : Distorted thinking patterns, such as catastrophizing or excessive attention to bodily sensations, can contribute to the development and maintenance of somatoform disorders. These cognitive processes may amplify physical symptoms and perpetuate the cycle of illness behaviour.
  • Sociocultural Factors : Sociocultural influences, such as cultural beliefs about health and illness, societal expectations regarding symptom expression, and the influence of the media, can impact the manifestation and interpretation of somatic symptoms.
  • Learned Behaviour : Observing others, such as family members or peers, who engage in illness behaviours or have a preoccupation with physical symptoms, can influence an individual’s own perception and response to bodily sensations.

It is important to note that the exact causes of somatoform disorders are not fully understood and can vary between individuals. Each person’s experience is unique, and a comprehensive evaluation by a mental health professional is necessary to determine the specific factors contributing to their somatoform disorder.


The treatment approach for somatoform disorders typically involves a combination of psychological interventions and, in some cases, medication. Here are some commonly utilised treatment strategies :

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) : CBT is often the primary psychological treatment for somatoform disorders. It aims to identify and modify the maladaptive thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours related to physical symptoms. The therapist helps the individual develop healthier coping strategies, challenge irrational thoughts, and gradually increase engagement in activities that have been avoided due to the symptoms.
  • Mindfulness-Based Therapies : Techniques such as mindfulness meditation and acceptance-based therapies can be beneficial in managing distress related to somatic symptoms. These approaches help individuals develop non-judgmental awareness of their bodily sensations and emotions, reducing anxiety and promoting acceptance.
  • Education and Psychoeducation : Providing individuals with information about somatoform disorders, including the mind-body connection and the role of stress, can help them better understand their condition. Psychoeducation involves educating patients and their families about the nature of the disorder, treatment options, and self-help strategies.
  • Psychotropic Medications : In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage accompanying symptoms such as anxiety or depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other antidepressant medications may be prescribed based on individual needs and symptom presentation. It’s important to note that medication alone is not considered a primary treatment for somatoform disorders.
  • Therapeutic Alliance and Support : Developing a strong therapeutic alliance between the individual and their therapist is crucial. Providing emotional support, validating the individual’s experiences, and addressing any underlying psychosocial stressors can contribute to the overall treatment effectiveness.
  • Rehabilitation Programs : For individuals with severe and chronic somatoform disorders, multidisciplinary rehabilitation programs may be beneficial. These programs involve a combination of physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychological interventions to improve functioning and quality of life.

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