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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Therapy Eases Hypochondriacs' Physical Pain

Cognitive Behavior Therapy to Teach 'New Ways' of Thinking Shows Promise

Hypochondria Not Well Understood

Barsky tells WebMD that the cause of hypochondria is not well understood, but may result from childhood events, such as when a parent gets sick or dies. "When they reach that age where their father died of heart disease, they feel pressure in their chest," he says.

Currently, others types of therapy and antidepressants are used to treat hypochondriacs. "Traditional psychotherapy doesn't seem to be effective," Barsky says. "Some preliminary studies suggest drugs might be helpful, but antidepressant use has not been rigorously studied yet."

But the ramifications of his study could be huge. It's estimated that 15% of all health costs is to evaluate people who feel physical symptoms but have no diagnosable medical illness, Barsky says. However, not all of these patients are hypochondriacs.

"What's interesting and valuable about Dr. Barsky's study is that he has found you can use a form of structured psychotherapy to change the way people think. By changing the way they think, it helps them to understand their symptoms in a different way, and not be as frightened by them," says Steven Locke, MD, another Harvard psychiatrist who has studied hypochondria treatment options. "When their fear and anxiety associated with symptoms subsides, the symptoms themselves tend to subside because the nervous system quiets down."

Locke was not involved in Barsky's study, but his own research shows the benefits of therapy on those with medically unexplainable symptoms. In one study, Locke found that symptoms -- along with levels of anxiety -- noticeably decreased in a group of hypochondrial patients who underwent six weeks of group therapy in a classroom setting. "What we used had elements of cognitive behavior therapy," he tells WebMD. "And it was clinically effective."

In another study, Locke says that patients who had medically unexplained symptoms but were not diagnosed hypochondriacs had saved an average of $1,000 in medical costs one year after undergoing this therapy.

Still, despite these promising results -- "significantly lower levels of hypochondriacal symptoms, beliefs, and attitudes and health-related anxiety" among patients getting cognitive behavior therapy -- an important question remains:

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