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Mental Health and Somatic Symptom Disorder

How Is Somatic Symptom Disorder Treated?

A main goal of somatic symptom disorder treatment is to help patients live and function as normally as possible, even if they continue to have symptoms. Treatment also aims to alter the thinking and behavior that leads to the symptoms.

The disorder can be very difficult to treat. This is due, in part, to the fact that people who have it refuse to believe their symptoms are the result of mental or emotional rather than physical causes.

Treatment for somatic symptom disorder most often includes a combination of the following options:

  • Supportive care: In most cases, the best course of action is for the person to stay in regular contact with a trusted health care provider. Within this doctor-patient relationship, the doctor can monitor the symptoms and stay alert to any changes that might signal a real medical illness. The doctor's main approach is likely to focus on reassuring and supporting the person, and preventing unnecessary tests and treatments. It might be necessary, however, to treat some of the symptoms, such as severe pain.
  • Medications: Antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs are sometimes used if a person with somatic symptom disorder also has a mood disorder or anxiety disorder.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling), particularly cognitive therapy, can be helpful in changing the thinking and behavior that contribute to the symptoms. Therapy also can help the person learn better ways to deal with stress, and improve his or her social and work functioning. Unfortunately, most people with somatic symptom disorder deny there are any mental or emotional problems, making them fairly resistant to psychotherapy.

 

What Complications Are Associated With Somatic Symptom Disorder?

A person with somatic symptom disorder is at risk for repeated episodes of symptoms. He or she also might suffer from reactions or health problems related to multiple tests, procedures, and treatments. In addition to the pain and frustration this disorder often causes to the person and his or her family, repeated episodes also can lead to unnecessary and risky procedures, as well as high medical bills and trouble functioning in daily life. Further, genuine medical problems can be missed in a person with a long history of having tests with negative results, because doctors may assume the person's complaint is caused by a psychiatric problem, rather than a real physical illness.

What Is the Outlook for People With Somatic Symptom Disorder?

This disorder tends to be a chronic (long-term) condition that can last for years. In many cases, symptoms can recur. Only a small percentage of patients recover completely. For that reason, the focus of treatment is on learning to manage and control symptoms, and on minimizing functional problems associated with the disorder.

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