What Is It?
Hypochondriasis is a persistent fear of having a serious medical illness. A person with this disorder tends to misinterpret normal sensations, bodily functions and mild symptoms as a sign of an illness with a grim outcome. For example, a person may fear that the normal sounds of digestion, sweating or a mark on the skin may be a sign of a serious disease.
A person with hypochondriasis may be especially concerned about a particular organ system (such as the cardiac or digestive system). A doctor’s reassurance and even a complete medical evaluation often will not calm the person’s fears. Or, if it does calm them, other worries may emerge days later.
Generally, people with this disorder do not become delusional. They may admit the possibility that their fears are exaggerated. They may, however, only accept being told they are ill.
There is a tendency to go from doctor to doctor, looking for one that will confirm the presumed illness. The patient and the doctors may become frustrated or angry. The intensive search for illnesses that cannot be found sometimes interferes with the person getting proper care if a true medical illness should occur.
Some people with this disorder have had a serious illness in the past, particularly in childhood. Somatic symptoms may become more intense after a stressful event, for example, the death of a loved one. Hypochondriasis can occur at any age, and in both men and women. Often the disorder starts in young adulthood, and it can last many years.
Although being ill is uncomfortable, it can bring benefits, such as the attention and care of family members, friends, and doctors, and relief from responsibilities. Sometimes, hypochondriasis is motivated by these secondary advantages, usually not consciously.
Less commonly, a person is feigning illness to seek some obvious gain, such as getting a drug or a financial benefit, or avoiding some work or legal responsibility. When someone consciously seeks such advantages, the condition is called malingering. Hypochondriasis is different from malingering. In hypochondriasis, the patient is not pretending, but believes the illness is real; he or she truly feels ill.
Symptoms of hypochondriasis include:
- Preoccupation with having serious illness
- Misinterpretation of body symptoms
- Persistent fear despite medical reassurance
- Absence of delusions or psychosis
- Clinical distress or functional impairment
The diagnosis usually is suspected by a primary care physician and confirmed by a psychiatrist or other mental health professional. The diagnosis is based on a person’s medical complaints and history, and a doctor’s physical examination and laboratory tests. The disorder may be accompanied by severe anxiety symptoms or obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Fear or exaggerated concerns about medical illness also may appear as part of other mental disorders, such as the various forms of depression, schizophrenia or somatization disorder.
Hypochondriasis is a chronic (long-lasting) condition that can begin at any time of life. It can last for years.
There is no known way to prevent this disorder.
If a person with hypochondriasis also has depression, anxiety or psychosis, these conditions should be treated. Compassion and support can be combined with an antidepressant, an antianxiety agent, or an antipsychotic medication. People with hypochondriasis can be helped by a primary care physician who understands the nature of the disorder. If the doctor understands that the medical complaints probably will never go away, a regular schedule of short appointments, in which physical complaints are taken seriously, may help to contain the patient’s anxiety. If a doctor attempts to limit contact with the patient by being dismissive, the patient’s anxiety is likely to get worse.
Psychotherapy usually does not work well in treating hypochondriasis. Most people with the disorder are not eager to see a mental health professional. However, a savvy therapist can help the person to cope with symptoms rather than curing them. Doctors and therapists should take the physical symptoms seriously, because the symptoms are real. The person’s concerns may well be addressed by a team of medical and mental health professionals working together in consultation. The goal of such an arrangement is to maintain a serious and respectful attitude toward the medical complaints, to avoid unnecessary, intrusive, and sometimes risky medical tests and procedures, and to provide support for coping with a real chronic illness.
When To Call A Professional
People with hypochondriasis tend to contact health care providers readily. However, they will not want to see mental health professionals, because they fear that people view their medical symptoms as “all in your head.” However, early treatment by a mental health professional can be helpful.
If the person has anxiety or depression that responds to treatment with medication, the prognosis can be quite good. Otherwise, a person with hypochondriasis may be susceptible to chronic distress and functional impairment.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.