A somatic symptom disorder, formerly known as a somatoform disorder,[1][2][3] is any mental disorder which manifests as physical symptoms that suggest illness or injury, but which cannot be explained fully by a general medical condition or by the direct effect of a substance, and are not attributable to another mental disorder (e.g., panic disorder).[4] Somatic symptom disorders, as a group, are included in a number of diagnostic schemes of mental illness, including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (Before DSM-5 this disorder was split into somatization disorder and undifferentiated somatoform disorder.)

In people who have been diagnosed with a somatic symptom disorder, medical test results are either normal or do not explain the person's symptoms, and history and physical examination do not indicate the presence of a known medical condition that could cause them, though it is important to note that the DSM-5 cautions that this alone is not sufficient for diagnosis.[1] The patient must also be excessively worried about their symptoms, and this worry must be judged to be out of proportion to the severity of the physical complaints themselves.[5] A diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder requires that the subject have recurring somatic complaints for at least six months.[6]

Symptoms are sometimes similar to those of other illnesses and may last for years. Usually, the symptoms begin appearing during adolescence, and patients are diagnosed before the age of 30 years.[7] Symptoms may occur across cultures and gender.[6] Other common symptoms include anxiety and depression.[6] However, since anxiety and depression are also very common in persons with confirmed medical illnesses,[8] it remains possible that such symptoms are a consequence of the physical impairment, rather than a cause. Somatic symptom disorders are not the result of conscious malingering (fabricating or exaggerating symptoms for secondary motives) or factitious disorders (deliberately producing, feigning, or exaggerating symptoms).[9] Somatic symptom disorder is difficult to diagnose and treat. Some advocates of the diagnosis believe this is because proper diagnosis and treatment requires psychiatrists to work with neurologists on patients with this disorder.[6]


Somatic symptom disorders are a group of disorders, all of which fit the definition of physical symptoms similar to those observed in physical disease or injury for which there is no identifiable physical cause. As such, they are a diagnosis of exclusion. Somatic symptoms may be generalized in four major medical categories: neurological, cardiac, pain, and gastrointestinal somatic symptoms.[10]

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

Somatic symptom disorders used to be recognized as Somatoform disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association. The following[11] were conditions under the term Somatoform Disorders:

  • Conversion disorder: A somatic symptom disorder involving the actual loss of bodily function such as blindness, paralysis, and numbness due to excessive anxiety
  • Somatization disorder
  • Hypochondriasis
  • Body dysmorphic disorder: wherein the afflicted individual is concerned with body image, and is manifested as excessive concern about and preoccupation with a perceived defect of their physical appearance.
  • Pain disorder
  • Undifferentiated somatic symptom disorder – only one unexplained symptom is required for at least 6 months.

In the newest version of DSM-5 (2013) somatic symptom disorders are recognized under the term Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders:

  • Somatic Symptom Disorder: Will take over many of what was formerly known as Somatization Disorders, and Hypochondriasis
  • Factitious disorder: Can be either imposed on ones self, or to someone else (Formally known as Factitious Disorder by proxy).
  • Conversion disorder
  • Illness anxiety disorder: A somatic symptom disorder involving persistent and excessive worry about developing a serious illness. This disorder has recently gone under review and has been altered into three different classifications.[citation needed]
  • Somatoform disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS)[12]

Included among these disorders are false pregnancy, psychogenic urinary retention, and mass psychogenic illness (so-called mass hysteria).

Somatization disorder as a mental disorder was recognized in the DSM-IV-TR classification system, but in the latest version DSM-5, it was combined with undifferentiated somatoform disorder to become somatic symptom disorder, a diagnosis which no longer requires a specific number of somatic symptoms.[13]

International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems

The ICD-10, the latest version of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, classifies conversion disorder as a dissociative disorder. ICD-10 still includes somatization syndrome.[14]

Proposed disorders

Additional proposed somatic symptom disorders are:

  • Abridged somatization disorder[15] – at least 4 unexplained somatic complaints in men and 6 in women
  • Multisomatoform disorder[6] – at least 3 unexplained somatic complaints from the PRIME-MD scale for at least 2 years of active symptoms

These disorders have been proposed because the recognized somatic symptom disorders are either too restrictive or too broad. In a study of 119 primary care patients, the following prevalences were found:[16]

  • Somatization disorder – 1%
  • Abridged somatization disorder – 6%
  • Multisomatoform disorder – 24%
  • Undifferentiated somatoform disorder – 69%


Each of the specific somatic symptom disorders has its own diagnostic criteria.


Somatic symptom disorder has been a controversial diagnosis, since it was historically based primarily on negative criteria - that is, the absence of a medical explanation for the presenting physical complaints. Consequently, any person suffering from a poorly understood illness can potentially fulfill the criteria for this psychiatric diagnosis, even if they exhibit no psychiatric symptoms in the conventional sense.[17][18] In 2013-4, there were several widely publicized cases of individuals being involuntarily admitted to psychiatric wards on the basis of this diagnosis alone.[19][20] This has raised concerns about the consequences of potential misuse of this diagnostic category.


In the opinion of Allen Frances, chair of the DSM-IV task force, the DSM-5's somatic symptom disorder brings with it a risk of mislabeling a sizable proportion of the population as mentally ill. “Millions of people could be mislabeled, with the burden falling disproportionately on women, because they are more likely to be casually dismissed as ‘catastrophizers’ when presenting with physical symptoms.”[18]


Psychotherapy, more specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is the most widely used form of treatment for Somatic symptom disorder. In 2016, a randomized 12-week study suggested steady and significant improvement in health anxiety measures with cognitive behavioral therapy compared to the control group.[21]

CBT can help in some of the following ways:[22]

  • Learn to reduce stress
  • Learn to cope with physical symptoms
  • Learn to deal with depression and other psychological issues
  • Improve quality of life
  • Reduce preoccupation with symptom

Moreover, brief psychodynamic interpersonal psychotherapy (PIT) for patients with multisomatoform disorder has shown its long-term efficacy for improving the physical quality of life in patients with multiple, difficult-to-treat, medically unexplained symptoms.[23]

Antidepressant medication has also been used to treat some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety that are common among people who have somatic symptom disorder.[22] Medications will not cure somatic symptom disorder, but can help the treatment process when combined with CBT.

See also


  1. ^ a b (2013) "Somatic Symptom Disorder Fact Sheet Archived 2013-11-02 at the Wayback Machine." dsm5.org. Retrieved April 8, 2014.
  2. ^ "DSM-5 redefines hypochondriasis Archived 2015-02-23 at the Wayback Machine." mayoclinic.org. Retrieved April 8, 2014.
  3. ^ "Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders" psychiatryonline.org. Retrieved April 8, 2014.
  4. ^ American Psychiatric Association. Task Force on DSM-IV (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. American Psychiatric Pub. p. 485. ISBN 978-0-89042-025-6. 
  5. ^ Oyama O, Paltoo C, Greengold J (November 2007). "Somatoform disorders". American Family Physician. 76 (9): 1333–8. PMID 18019877. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Kroenke K; Spitzer RL; deGruy FV; et al. (1997). "Multisomatoform disorder. An alternative to undifferentiated somatoform disorder for the somatizing patient in primary care". Arch. Gen. Psychiatry. 54 (4): 352–8. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1997.01830160080011. PMID 9107152. 
  7. ^ LaFrance WC (July 2009). "Somatoform disorders". Seminars in Neurology. 29 (3): 234–46. doi:10.1055/s-0029-1223875. PMID 19551600. 
  8. ^ Cassem, Edwin H. (March 1995). "Depressive Disorders in the Medically Ill". Psychosomatics. 36 (2): S2–S10. doi:10.1016/S0033-3182(95)71698-X. 
  9. ^ Skumin, V. A. (1991). Pogranichnye psikhicheskie rasstroĭstva pri khronicheskikh bolezniakh pishchevaritel'noĭ sistemy u deteĭ i podrostkov [Borderline mental disorders in chronic diseases of the digestive system in children and adolescents] (in Russian). Moscow: Zhurnal nevropatologii i psikhiatrii imeni S.S. Korsakova. OCLC 117464823. Archived from the original on 10 July 2015. Retrieved 18 January 2015. 
  10. ^ Williams, Sara E.; Zahka, Nicole E. (2017). Treating Somatic Symptoms in Children and Adolescents (Guilford Child and Adolescent Practitioner Series). 370 Seventh Avenue, Suite 1200, New York, NY 10001: The Guilford Press. pp. 18–21. ISBN 9781462529520. LCCN 2016049135. 
  11. ^ American Psychiatric Association. Task Force on DSM-IV (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. American Psychiatric Pub. p. 485. ISBN 978-0-89042-025-6. 
  12. ^ Hales, Robert E; Yudofsky, Stuart C (2004). "Essentials of Clinical Psychiatry". ISBN 9781585620333. 
  13. ^ "Highlights of Changes from DSM-IV-TR to DSM-5" (PDF). American Psychiatric Association. May 17, 2013. Archived (PDF) from the original on September 17, 2013. Retrieved September 6, 2013. 
  14. ^ "ICD-10 Version:2015". Archived from the original on 2015-11-02. Retrieved 2015-05-23. 
  15. ^ Escobar JI, Rubio-Stipec M, Canino G, Karno M (1989). "Somatic symptom index (SSI): a new and abridged somatization construct. Prevalence and epidemiological correlates in two large community samples". J. Nerv. Ment. Dis. 177 (3): 140–6. doi:10.1097/00005053-198903000-00003. PMID 2918297. 
  16. ^ Lynch DJ, McGrady A, Nagel R, Zsembik C (1999). "Somatization in Family Practice: Comparing 5 Methods of Classification". Primary care companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 1 (3): 85–89. doi:10.4088/PCC.v01n0305. PMC 181067Freely accessible. PMID 15014690. 
  17. ^ Morrison, J. (2014). DSM-5® made easy: The clinician's guide to diagnosis. New York: Guildford Press.
  18. ^ a b Frances A (2013). "The new somatic symptom disorder in DSM-5 risks mislabeling many people as mentally ill". BMJ. 346: f1580. doi:10.1136/bmj.f1580. PMID 23511949. 
  19. ^ Ablow, K. (2014, June 17). Justina Pelletier's legal nightmare should frighten all parents. FoxNews. Retrieved from www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/06/17/justina-pelletier-legal-nightmare-should-frighten-all-parents/, July 2, 2015
  20. ^ Sparre, S. (2013, October 27). Patienter føler sig overset af læger. TV2 Denmark. Retrieved from "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-09-10. Retrieved 2015-07-06. , July 2, 2015. (translation: Patients feel neglected by doctors).
  21. ^ Hedman, Erik; Axelsson, Erland; Andersson, Erik; Lekander, Mats; Ljótsson, Brjánn (2016-11-01). "Exposure-based cognitive-behavioural therapy via the internet and as bibliotherapy for somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder: randomised controlled trial". The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science. 209 (5): 407–413. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.116.181396. ISSN 1472-1465. PMID 27491531. Archived from the original on 2017-04-20. 
  22. ^ a b "Somatic symptom disorder Treatments and drugs - Mayo Clinic". Mayo Clinic. Archived from the original on 2017-04-19. Retrieved 2017-04-19. 
  23. ^ Sattel H, Lahmann C, Gundel H, Guthrie E, Kruse J, Noll-Hussong M, Ohmann C, Ronel J, Sack M, Sauer N, Schneider G, Henningsen P. Brief psychodynamic interpersonal psychotherapy for patients with multisomatoform disorder: randomised controlled trial. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science. 2012;200(1):60-7.

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