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Causes of Somatoform Disorders

Somatoform disorders are a group of diagnosable mental illnesses that lead to medical complaints that don’t actually match your physical condition. Current guidelines in the U.S. refer to these illnesses as somatic symptom and related disorders. No one knows exactly why such conditions occur. However, doctors and researchers have identified a range of factors that may contribute to the appearance of symptoms.

Somatoform Disorder Essentials

The American Psychiatric Association currently recognizes four main somatoform disorders:

  • Somatic symptom disorder
  • Illness anxiety disorder (hypochondria)
  • Conversion disorder (also known as functional neurological symptom disorder), and
  • Factitious disorder

This mental health category also includes three less well-defined illnesses that include psychological factors affecting other medical conditions, other specified somatic and symptom-related disorder, and unspecified somatic and symptom related disorder. Somatoform disorders may sometimes seem to overlap. However, each condition has its own unique, and uniquely damaging, effects. People with somatic symptom disorder have extremely anxious reactions to real physical symptoms that may or may not have a clear cause. People with illness anxiety disorder experience excessive worry about real or non-existent physical symptoms that might (in their minds) lead to serious health problems. People with conversion disorder develop medically unexplained changes in the normal function of their nervous systems that produce symptoms such as paralysis or blindness. People with factitious disorder knowingly falsify or exaggerate symptoms of physical illness or injury in themselves or in other people. When directed at the self, the condition is also known as Munchausen syndrome. When directed at others, it’s known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Causes of Somatic Symptom Disorder

Although no one truly knows why somatic symptom disorder occurs, doctors and researchers have identified several underlying factors that tend to increase your risks. These factors include:

  • Your age (most cases occur in people under the age of 30)
  • The presence of a generally negative take on life
  • An unusual physical sensitivity to pain or other physical feelings
  • An unusual emotional sensitivity to pain or other physical feelings
  • A family history of the condition, and
  • Certain details of your genetic background

You may also have unusually high risks for the disorder if you have been sexually or physically abused.

Causes of Illness Anxiety Disorder

Three main factors appear to increase your chances of developing illness anxiety disorder. They are:

  • Lack of knowledge about the effects of disease and/or lack of an ability to accurately interpret physical sensations in your body
  • Fear based on a personal history of serious or severe childhood illness, and
  • Growing up in a family that fosters anxiety about health-related matters

The disorder typically appears in young adulthood or middle age. As you grow older, its symptoms may intensify. Elderly adults may feel especially anxious about developing Alzheimer’s disease or other memory-robbing conditions.

Causes of Conversion Disorder

Most people affected by conversion disorder rapidly develop symptoms after living through an especially stressful or traumatic event or situation. Experts believe that these symptoms may represent a mental/emotional conflict triggered by stress or trauma. Generally speaking, your chances of developing conversion disorder increase if you:

  • Have a medically verified physical health condition
  • Have any one of 10 diagnosable personality disorders, or
  • Have serious symptoms of dissociation (a sense of detachment from reality or from your own body or mind)

Causes of Factitious Disorder

Experts believe that factitious disorder has both mental/psychological and physical/biological roots. However, no one really knows how these factors interact in any single affected person. You may have increased risks for the disorder if you:

  • Were neglected, physically abused or sexually abused during childhood
  • Have a personal history of frequent, serious health problems treated in a hospital, or
  • Have a family history of these same types of health problems

  Resources American Academy of Family Physicians: Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus: Somatic Symptom Disorder Mayo Clinic: Illness Anxiety Disorder U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus: Conversion Disorder Cleveland Clinic: Factitious Disorders

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