Munchausen syndrome is a factitious disorder, a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. Munchausen syndrome is considered a mental illness because it is associated with severe emotional difficulties.
Munchausen syndrome, named for Baron von Munchausen, an 18th century German officer who was known for embellishing the stories of his life and experiences, is the most severe type of factitious disorder. Most of the symptoms in people with Munchausen syndrome are related to physical illness -- symptoms such as chest pain, stomach problems, or fever -- rather than those of a mental disorder.
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NOTE: Although Munchausen syndrome usually refers to a factitious disorder with mostly physical symptoms, the term is sometimes used to refer to factitious disorders in general. In this article, Munchausen syndrome refers to the type of factitious disorder with mostly physical symptoms.
What Are the Symptoms of Munchausen Syndrome?
People with Munchausen syndrome deliberately produce or exaggerate symptoms in several ways. They may lie about or fake symptoms, hurt themselves to bring on symptoms, or alter tests (such as contaminating a urine sample). Possible warning signs of Munchausen syndrome include:
Dramatic but inconsistent medical history
Unclear symptoms that are not controllable and that become more severe or change once treatment has begun
Predictable relapses following improvement in the condition
Extensive knowledge of hospitals and/or medical terminology, as well as the textbook descriptions of illnesses
Presence of multiple surgical scars
Appearance of new or additional symptoms following negative test results
Presence of symptoms only when the patient is with others or being observed
Willingness or eagerness to have medical tests, operations, or other procedures
History of seeking treatment at numerous hospitals, clinics, and doctors offices, possibly even in different cities
Reluctance by the patient to allow doctors to meet with or talk to family, friends, or prior doctors
Problems with identity and self-esteem
What Causes Munchausen Syndrome?
The exact cause of Munchausen syndrome is not known, but researchers are looking at the role of biological and psychological factors in its development. Some theories suggest that a history of abuse or neglect as a child, or a history of frequent illnesses that required hospitalization might be factors in the development of the syndrome. Researchers are also studying a possible link to personality disorders, which are common in people with Munchausen syndrome.
How Common Is Munchausen Syndrome?
There are no reliable statistics regarding the number of people in the U.S. who suffer from Munchausen syndrome, but it is considered to be a rare condition. Obtaining accurate statistics is difficult because dishonesty is common with this illness. In addition, people with Munchausen syndrome tend to seek treatment at many different health care facilities, which can lead to misleading statistics.
In general, Munchausen syndrome is more common in men than in women. While it can occur in children, it most often affects young adults.