Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT
When most of us feel pain and fear something is wrong with our mind or body, we go to our primary care doctor for an evaluation. Once we visit the doctor, they either order tests for further evaluation, prescribe medication to help relieve symptoms or send you to a specialist when tests come back normal.
In a perfect world, we eventually receive a diagnosis that explains our symptoms. Not only that, but the doctors put together an effective and quality treatment plan to help you manage, relieve, and even eliminate the symptoms that were once causing intense distress in your life.
Unfortunately, many of us go to the doctor and can't find a medical explanation for our symptoms. It's not that the symptoms don't exist, and it's not that the doctor isn't good at their job. It could, however, be a sign that we're dealing with somatic symptom disorder.
So, what is somatic symptom disorder?
Somatic symptom disorder is present in nearly five to seven percent of the adult population. It's characterized by physical symptoms (pain, weakness, shortness of breath, etc.) that cause a great deal of distress in someone's life.
While this is true with most pain types, somatic symptoms disorder occurs when the symptoms don't have a medical explanation. In some cases, a medical explanation is present, but it doesn't explain the severity of the distress in the individual's life.
Somatic symptom disorder is present in any age group but is more common in women than men. Although there is a wide range of related disorders, somatic symptom disorder is a serious condition that needs medical assistance immediately -- especially since it causes great distress in the individual's life.
In many cases where somatic symptom disorder is present, the individual is also experiencing anxiety and depression. Even when the individual receives positive test results and good news from the doctor, this anxiety worsens.
It's important to understand that the individual is not faking their symptoms. Some people fake symptoms for various reasons, but these individuals are truly experiencing pain. They're diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder when the symptoms start to impact the individual's life negatively.
While researchers and doctors are unsure of the direct causes behind somatic symptom disorder, they believe a variety of risk factors play a role. For example, physical and sexual abuse in an individual's childhood is believed to increase SSD risk.
In addition to that, a low pain threshold, excessive attention to bodily processes, genetics, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, chaotic lifestyles, chronic illness throughout childhood, and neglect during childhood are all thought to play a role in the development or worsening of somatic symptom disorder.
How Is Somatic Symptom Disorder Diagnosed?
There are various symptoms that someone can watch out for when detecting somatic symptom disorder in themselves or their loved ones. In addition to that, several criteria must be met for the medical health professional to diagnose the individual.
First, let's take a look at some of the most common symptoms associated with somatic symptom disorder:
- Pain is often the primary symptom of this Disorder. It can occur in the legs, arms, chest, abdomen, back, joints, and any other area on their body.
- Headaches, weakness, fainting, dizziness, movement disorders, and other neurological disorders.
- Issues with the digestive system, bowel movements, incontinence, diarrhea, or constipation.
- Feeling of pain before, during, or after sexual activity.
- Visiting the doctor's office multiple times, despite receiving good news each time.
- Being unresponsive to medical treatment or being sensitive to the adverse effects of treatment.
Now that we have a deeper understanding of the symptoms involved, let's take a look at the criteria that must be met before being diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder:
- The individual must be experiencing at least one symptom causing excessive distress or disruption in their life. The symptoms could be gastrointestinal, sexual, pain-related, or pseudo neurological.
- The individual must have excessive thoughts, behaviors, or feelings due to the symptoms they're experiencing. The thoughts, behaviors, and feelings must be related to the symptoms' seriousness, anxiety over the symptoms, or time spent obsessing over the symptoms.
- The individual must have been experiencing the symptoms for more than six months.
Once those criteria are met, the medical health professional must specify if what the individual is experiencing is predominantly pain or not. They also need to specify whether the symptoms are persistent and the symptoms' severity (mild, moderate, severe).
How Is Somatic Symptom Disorder Treated?
When treating somatic symptom disorder, the medical health professional must have a deep understanding of the individual's specific symptoms. This is crucial because everyone has a different experience with somatic symptom disorder.
The treatment plan's goal is to help the individual find ways to manage their symptoms, relieve or reduce their pain, and address any underlying conditions such as depression and anxiety -- both of which are common in those living with somatic symptom disorder.
There are two major ways a medical health professional treats this type of disorder -- medication and therapy. It's important to note that any medication or therapy should be administered and prescribed by a professional. Not only that, but it should be followed as directed by the professional.
The prescribed medication generally targets the individual's neurotransmitter activity in their brain, whether dopamine, norepinephrine, or serotonin. Medical health professionals might also consider medication to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
As far as the therapy is concerned, therapists often use cognitive behavioral therapy to find additional ways of managing the symptoms. Over time, a strong doctor-patient relationship is crucial to the individual seeing progress with their symptoms.
ARE THERE ANY RELATED DISORDERS TO SSD?
Somatic symptom disorder is often misdiagnosed or confused with a variety of other related disorders. This can be crucial to the individual finding the right treatment plan and must be considered by the medical health professional before diagnosing somatic symptom disorder.
Three major disorders are often related to SSD -- illness anxiety disorder, conversion disorder, and factitious disorder. Let's take a closer look at these three disorders:
- Illness Anxiety Disorder - also known as hypochondriasis or health anxiety, Disorder involves having extreme anxiety that you are or will become ill in the future. The main difference between this Disorder and SSD is that these individuals generally don't have physical symptoms.
- Conversion Disorder is when an individual experiences blindness, paralysis, or any other symptom affecting the nervous system. The symptom can't be explained by an injury or medical condition and generally appear suddenly without warning.
- Factitious Disorder - this type of Disorder is diagnosed when an individual purposefully deceives others that they're sick or in pain. The individual could also get sick on purpose or injure themselves on purpose. In some cases, parents might falsely present their children as sick or in pain.
In addition to those related disorders, somatic symptom disorder is often confused with psychological factors affecting other medical conditions (PFAOMC). It's a disorder characterized by psychological or behavioral factors that interfere or contribute to a medical condition.
There's also such a thing as brief somatic symptom disorder, which is the same as somatic symptom disorder -- the only difference is that the symptoms are experienced for less than six months, hence the name brief.
WHEN IS IT TIME TO RECEIVE PROFESSIONAL HELP?
Somatic symptom disorder is an extremely difficult disorder to diagnose because it often takes a long time to rule out all the other options. It also takes a very close relationship between the individual and the doctor to ensure they continue to see the progress necessary.
The more time spent with your doctor, the more effective they'll be when finding a somatic symptom disorder treatment plan that's right for you. Treatment for somatic symptom disorder can be just as difficult as diagnosing it, but it can be done with the right level of support and help.
Before you start to seek somatization disorder treatment, you should first understand what this Disorder is and what the symptoms are. Of course, you can also utilize our comprehensive online somatic symptom disorder test to understand your symptoms better.
Our online test is designed to calculate your risk of developing somatic symptom disorder. We also help match you with a proven therapist or medical health professional to ensure you receive and continue to receive the proper somatic disorder treatment specific to your needs.
We understand how stressful and trying a time this is for you and your loved ones. It can be extremely frustrating to feel what you're feeling and not know why. That's what makes your support group so crucial to your progress -- as well as tools and resources like those provided by Mind Diagnostics.
Together, we can search for a better life and better opportunities that don't involve the constant stress, depression, and anxiety in our lives.