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Somatoform disorders, sometimes referred to as dissociative somatoform disorders, are a group of conditions that appear to manifest physical symptoms of unspecific origin. In other words, they generally cannot be attributed to any specific medical cause that is physical in nature. For this reason, they are collectively considered to be psychiatric conditions. This does not mean to say that these disorders exist only in the patient’s head. On the contrary, there are several different types of somatoform disorders, all of which are very real.
General pain disorder, for example, is characterized by the presence of pain in one or more areas of the body, or the entire body, without any apparent physical cause. Fibromyalgia was once considered a disorder of this type, although many clinicians now believe that overactive nerves are to blame. By definition, a diagnosis of pain disorder includes psychological factors that may contribute to physical stress.
Another type of somatoform disorder is conversion disorder, which is marked by a sudden loss of voluntary motor, sensory, or neurological functioning. For instance, the patient may suddenly find him or herself unable to speak or see. Some patients even demonstrate complete paralysis that has no medical basis.
Hypochondriasis relates to a fear of or preoccupation with a medical condition that isn’t physically present, yet its associated symptoms materialize in physical form. A person who has a persistent fear of having a heart attack and, as a result, subsequently complains of frequent chest pain or heart palpitations serves to illustrate an example of this type of disorder. Clinically speaking, the specific fear is usually present for at least six months and the reported symptoms are aligned with the patient’s perception of those that the illness would produce.
Body dysmorphic disorder is a condition in which the patient is keenly focused on one or more physical defects that are either not apparent to others or are grossly exaggerated. This type of somatoform disorder usually begins as minor self-criticism regarding appearance in childhood or adolescence and, to a certain extent, is considered normal. For instance, many teenagers express discontent with the size of their nose, or the condition of their skin. However, chronic obsession with the imagined or perceived defect can escalate this condition further psychologically and lead to real physical harm. In fact, this is how eating disorders typically manifest.
Somatoform disorders can affect anyone of any age, although there is a greater prevalence among women. In addition, the majority of all patients exhibit physical and cognitive responses well within normal range. For instance, rarely does the patient display evidence of disordered thought, lack of concentration, or compulsive tendencies. However, a certain degree of anxiety and, possibly, mild depression, may be observed.