Somatoform disorder is the name for a group of conditions in which the physical pain and symptoms a person feels are related to psychological factors. These symptoms can't be traced to a specific physical cause. In people who have a somatoform disorder, medical test results are either normal or don't explain the person's symptoms.
People who have this disorder may have several medical evaluations and tests to be sure that they don't have another illness. They often become very worried about their health because they don't know what's causing their health problems. Their symptoms are similar to the symptoms of other illnesses and may last for several years. People who have a somatoform disorder are not faking their symptoms. The pain that they feel is real.
Somatization disorder usually involves pain and severe neurological symptoms (such as headache, fatigue), digestive symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea) or sexual symtpoms (such as pain during sexual activity, loss of sexual desire, extremely painful periods in women).
Hypochondriasis occurs when a person believes that normal body functions (such as a grumbling stomach) or minor symptoms (such as a common headache) are symptoms of a very serious disorder. To a person who has hypochondriasis, a grumbling stomach may mean stomach cancer or a headache may mean a brain tumor.
Body dysmorphic disorder occurs when a person becomes obsessed with a flaw in his or her physical appearance that is either a minor flaw or a flaw that doesn't exist. He or she constantly worries about the perceived flaw, which can be any part of the body. Wrinkles, hair loss, weight gain, and size and shape of feature like the eyes, nose and breasts are all common concerns for people who have body dysmorhpic disorder.
Conversion disorder is when physical symptoms that are similar to a neurological disorder develop, when no neurological disorder is actually present. Paralysis of an arm or leg, vision loss, hearing loss and seizures are common symptoms. Stress may make the symptoms worse.
No one knows exactly why symptoms of somatoform disorders appear. In some cases, there may be a problem with the nerve impulses that send signals of pain, pressure and other unpleasant sensations to the brain. We do know that the pain and problems caused by somatoform disorder are real, they are not imagined.
Like many medical problems, somatoform disorders often run in families. They also tend to come and go over time.
Although there is no known cure for somatoform disorders, they can be managed. Treatment focuses on helping the person who has the disorder to live as much of a normal life as possible, even though he or she may still have some pain or other symptoms. Fortunately, a somatoform disorder will not shorten a person's life.
Your doctor may be able to prescribe medicine for some of your symptoms, but in many cases you will not need medicine.
Seeing your doctor for regular checkups is the most important part of your treatment. Your doctor will tell you how often he or she needs to see you. You may feel frustrated if your symptoms continue, but remember that somatoform disorders can be very difficult to treat. Your doctor will do his or her best to help you maintain your health.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff