Somatic symptom disorder is an illness that causes one or more somatic symptoms or bodily complaints. A person with this disorder may have no obvious medical condition that explains these symptoms, but the disturbance of normal functioning due to the somatic symptom(s) is clinically significant and results in marked distress (e.g., anxiety about the symptom, significant disruption of daily activities, etc.). This disorder should not be diagnosed if other conditions explain the somatic symptoms (e.g., another mental-health condition such as major depressive episode; general medical condition; substance use).
The average age for diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder
There are no exact numbers on how common this illness is because it’s relatively new but experts say people are being diagnosed in their 20s and 30s.
Experts say symptoms can be seen in all age groups, but symptoms are more common in women between the ages of 20-50 years old. This illness has been reported in both adults and children 6 years old or older. There are reports that symptoms may also begin during childhood or adolescence.
The symptoms of somatic symptom disorder
Exact symptoms vary among people with somatic symptom disorder, but in general, they have one or more of these symptoms: ongoing pain related to a possible medical condition that doctors cannot find; ongoing digestive problems without an obvious cause; ongoing headaches with no known cause; neurological problems such as numbness or weakness for which doctors cannot find a cause; or problems with sensation, such as tingling, burning, or itchy skin for which there is no known cause. The symptoms are not intentionally produced (as in factitious disorder) and cannot be explained fully by another illness or mental illness (such as panic disorder).
The symptoms must also cause significant distress and impairment in one’s daily life to meet the diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder. People may report feeling “ill” but without knowing exactly what they are feeling. They often say they feel like something bad will happen if they don’t take care of their bodies (e.g., preventing terrible things from happening like heart attacks, cancer, blindness). Oftentimes people might seek unnecessary medical tests and treatments.
The treatment of somatic symptom disorder
The treatment of somatic symptom disorder is based on a combination of psychotherapy and medication. The majority of individuals with this disorder will be treated with a type of talking therapy, known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT aims to help individuals to better understand the relationship between their symptoms, thoughts, feelings, and actions. In doing so, people may learn how to better manage symptoms by changing patterns of thinking or behavior that are contributing to the problem. People may also need additional treatments for CBT to be effective – such as antidepressant medication.
Your GP should be able to prescribe medication to help you manage your symptoms. Speak to your doctor if you think that the medication you’re currently taking isn’t working for you or is causing unpleasant side effects. It might be possible to prescribe a different medication (or a different dose) that will work better for you.