What Is Somatic Symptom Disorder?

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What Are Somatic Symptom Disorders?

Somatic symptom disorder (SSD) is a condition that causes a person to manifest physical symptoms that can’t be linked to any medical conditions. These symptoms often cause severe distress to a person who has the disorder. Research shows that about five to seven percent of people worldwide have somatic symptom disorder. It also appears to be a lot more prevalent among women than men.

A person with this condition often experiences excessive concerns about their health and might exhibit odd or unusual behaviors in response to these concerns.

People with SSD will feel overly concerned about any physical symptoms they exhibit and falsely connect them to signs of a more severe illness. They’ll also feel a lot of anxiety about symptoms they have. In cases where a medical condition can be linked to a person with SSD’s symptoms, their fears might be overstated. This condition can develop at any age.

Symptoms of Somatic Symptom Disorders

The symptoms a person with somatic symptom disorder experiences typically varies from person to person. Symptoms range in severity, and people with this condition usually experience a range of symptoms. However, some of the most common symptoms of the disorder include: 

  • Pain, areas where the pain is being felt vary from person to person  
  • Pain during sex 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Digestive problems such as diarrhea or constipation 

You’ll often find people with this condition exhibiting specific thoughts and behaviors centered around their physical symptoms and what they perceive might be wrong with them. If you have the condition, you might recognize some of the following sentiments: 

  • Feeling that your doctor isn’t doing enough to address your concerns
  • Spending a lot of time worrying about your symptoms and what to do about them
  • Feeling that mild symptoms are an indication of a severe condition
  • Become so consumed with worry about your symptoms that it affects your daily functioning
  • Going for frequent healthcare checks even when you are given the all-clear
  • Becoming either unusually sensitive or unresponsive to medication prescribed to you 

Identifying Somatic Symptom Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) provides the following diagnostic criteria for identifying somatic symptoms disorder: 

  • Experiencing somatic symptoms that cause significant distress and disrupt your daily functioning
  • Symptoms persisted for more than six months
  • Experiencing anxious thoughts or behaviors in response to having somatic symptoms

However, diagnosing SSD is difficult because, in most cases, the physical symptoms being exhibited can’t be linked to any medical conditions. Your doctor will typically look into your personal and medical history and ask for a series of lab tests to be conducted.

Suppose your lab results come back with no evidence of a medical condition. In that case, you might be referred to a mental health professional to help make a diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder. 

Causes of Somatic Symptom Disorders

There’s no singular cause for SSD, as with many mental health conditions. The disorder, however, has been linked to experiencing childhood abuse and trauma.

One theory on why the condition might affect more women than men is that women are more often exposed to abuse and trauma.

People with anxiety and a low pain threshold are also more susceptible to developing SSD. Certain risk factors make a person more susceptible to developing the condition than others.

They include: 

Related Disorders

There are other mental health disorders that affect the way people view their health concerns. These disorders are similar but not the same with SSD. They are sometimes grouped and referred to as somatoform disorders.

Some of the conditions include:

  • Factitious disorder: This condition causes a person to fake an illness or symptoms of a condition that they don’t have. 
  • Conversion disorder: This condition causes symptoms that affect a person’s perception or mobility but can’t be linked to a physical illness. For instance, a person with the disorder might suddenly be temporarily paralyzed. 
  • Illness anxiety disorder: Somatic symptoms disorder is similar to illness anxiety disorder, which used to be known as hypochondria. It is a condition that causes a person to think that they are always at risk of getting sick. However, unlike SSD, a person with hypochondria will typically experience no physical symptoms.

Complications Related to Somatic Symptoms Disorders 

While SSD might not result in physical medical conditions, it can severely affect the quality of your life. If it goes untreated, you can become so consumed with your perceived health problems that it starts to take a toll on your health and the relationships you have with other people.

You also have a higher risk of developing other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Many people with this condition also expend a lot of financial resources on trying to treat their perceived problems. A large amount of the money spent is typically unnecessary and could cause financial difficulties.

Treatment for Somatic Symptom Disorders

Treating somatic symptoms disorder can be tricky. This is mainly because people with this condition don’t realize that their anxiety exacerbates their symptoms.

Treatment focuses on helping a person with the disorder cope with the physical symptoms they are experiencing and identifying why they are occurring. 

Therapy 

Cognitive behavior therapy has shown to be the most effective form of treatment used in treating SSD. During therapy, your therapist will help you understand why you feel the way you do about your symptoms and teach you ways to cope with the anxiety that results from it. 

Medication 

Healthcare providers are typically hesitant to use medication to treat somatic symptom disorders. And there’s no specific drug to treat the condition.

While no medication is prescribed specifically to treat SSD in severe cases, your healthcare provider might prescribe antidepressants to treat co-occurring disorders like anxiety or depression. 

Coping With Somatic Symptom Disorders

Somatic symptoms disorder is a condition that can be easily managed with the right treatment plan and coping techniques. Being intentional about your treatment is essential, and the first step to that is acknowledging that you need help.

Making specific lifestyle changes can also significantly increase your quality of life. Research shows that 50% to 75% of people with this condition improve with the proper treatment.

Here are a few changes you could make that could improve your symptoms: 

  • Get more exercise: Getting more physically active can improve the way you feel physically, and it’s also great for your mental health
  • Manage stress: Constantly being stressed can exacerbate the way you feel about any mild physical symptoms you might be experiencing
  • Cut out bad habits: Drinking alcohol excessively or drinking a lot of caffeine could make your symptoms feel worse
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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Somatic symptom disorder in adults. July 11, 2018

  3. National Library of Medicine. Somatic symptom disorder. January 12, 2022

  4. Oyama O, Paltoo C, Greengold J. Somatoform disorders. AFP. 2007;76(9):1333-1338.