Mind & Body: Understanding Psychosomatic Diseases and Psychosomatic Pain

Nearly 6% of the adult population in the United States suffers from conditions classified as psychosomatic diseases. These illnesses fall under the unique category where the lines between symptoms pertaining to mind and body are blurred. They are a result of physical symptoms and manifestations of pain caused by psychological conditions. Psychosomatic pain might not have organic causes, instead, it can stem from stress, depression, and traumatic experiences. 

Individuals with psychosomatic illnesses tend to show high rates of depression, anxiety, and other associated psychological conditions that complicate the management of these diseases. Due to the absence of concrete treatment protocols, people with psychosomatic disorders are also forced to face a lot of frustration and despair, as the diagnoses might not always answer their concerns. Read on as we discuss the nature of psychosomatic diseases, pain, and what you can do if you’re dealing with a condition that falls under this category.

What are Psychosomatic Diseases?

  • Psychosomatic illnesses are characterized by the manifestation of physical symptoms caused by underlying psychological factors. 
  • If you suffer from a psychosomatic pain condition, it’s likely that you also suffer from anxiety, stress, and intrusive thoughts that disturb your mental well-being. 
  • Psychosomatic diseases can be a result of:
  1. A combination of mental & physical illness
  2. Physical illnesses causing mental disease
  3. Mental illnesses resulting in physical symptoms
  • The third type of psychosomatic disorder is of special importance and will be the focus of this article due to the complications involved in their diagnosis and treatment.
  • Individuals suffering from psychosomatic pain tend to believe their symptoms are the result of physical causes and are often unaware of underlying mental distress. 
  • Women are nearly 10 times more likely than men to develop a psychosomatic illness. 
  • Patients tend to visit doctors frequently, given their symptoms. However, repeatedly inconclusive test results and dissatisfactory diagnoses can put them off further, leading to an aggravation of symptoms in several cases. 
  • Psychosomatic disorders are also known as somatoform, or somatic symptom disorders. These terms are used interchangeably by medical professionals.  

psychosomatic diseases

What Causes Psychosomatic Disorders?

  • The exact cause of psychosomatic illnesses is not properly understood. However, doctors and researchers attribute the disease to a variety of factors that include: 
    • Genetic predispositions 
    • Hormonal imbalances 
    • Childhood trauma
    • Abuse
    • Stress
    • Depression 
  • Scientists think that stress and emotional disturbances drive the intensity and manifestation of physical symptoms when one suffers from psychosomatic diseases. 
  • Stress is an environmental factor that elicits several responses within the human body. In earlier humans, stress was the driving force for adaptation and survival. 
  • Stress is of both positive and negative types, with the former resulting in emotions and responses that include motivation, excitement, and subsequently, fulfillment.

The latter, on the other hand, can lead to anxiety, despair, and depression. 

  • The body releases a large cocktail of hormones when the body perceives stress. The most significant are adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. 
  • These hormones promote alertness, suppress hunger, raise blood sugar, stymie the functions of the immune system, and promote pain tolerance. 
  • While these bodily chemicals enable the body to deal with external stressors, a persistent state of stress can result in harmful outcomes. 
  • Psychosomatic conditions arise when the body is unable to return to its normal state following a period of stress. This results in unnaturally high levels of stress hormones that can cause several bodily parameters to go haywire. 

What are Psychosomatic Symptoms?

The symptoms of the psychosomatic illness include:

  • Severe anxiety and mental exhaustion 
  • Brain fog 
  • Depression
  • Irritability and confusion 
  • Frequent healthcare visits, often with inconclusive results
  • Performance difficulties at educational institutions or work 
  • Tense muscles
  • Sweaty palms 
  • Unbearable pain in areas such as the back and neck 
  • Tension headaches
  • Indigestion 
  • Erectile dysfunction 
  • Loss of libido 
  • Persistent overthinking and anxiety over health and illness
  • The appearance of symptoms not commonly associated with existent diseases 
  • Perception of mildly abnormal physical traits as severe illness 
  • Insomnia
  • Irregular and painful periods in women 
  • Little or no response to treatments 
  • Suicidal tendencies

psychosomatic pain

How are Psychosomatic Diseases Diagnosed?

There are several steps involved in the diagnosis of psychosomatic disorders: 

  • Most doctors often start by trying to look for physical signs and symptoms caused by overt reasons and factors in your daily life. 
  • In the absence of such causes or in case the investigations and tests return negative, your doctor may ask about your mental and emotional well-being. 
  • Doctors also ask for a detailed medical history, including previous healthcare visits and outcomes.
  • A detailed physical exam might be carried out to ensure the medical team is not missing out on anything before heading toward a diagnosis. 
  • Your doctor might also refer you to a mental health professional like a psychiatrist, to help them get a closer look at the underlying psychological causes of your symptoms. 
  • Though it might be frustrating for patients to hear about mental stress and other causes resulting in physical symptoms, these statements in no way negate the existence of pain. Psychosomatic pain is a very real phenomenon caused by an alternative pain pathway. 

Tests for Psychosomatic Disease & Psychosomatic Pain

  • Though doctors recommend a complete physical examination and might even request blood work and imaging tests, it’s not uncommon for doctors to avoid these. 
  • Once your doctor has a clear understanding of your problem, they might most likely avoid causing you further expense and frustration from potentially inconclusive testing. 
  • Most doctors rely on medical, family, and behavioral histories to get to the crux of the problem when it comes to psychosomatic conditions. 
  • Mental health professionals might ask you to elaborate upon sources of stress, past experiences of trauma, and abuse to help them come up with a concrete diagnosis. 

Treatment for Psychosomatic Illness

  • The treatment for somatoform disorders includes a combination of both therapy and medical management to address all the possible symptoms. 
  • Patients are advised to take up psychotherapeutic sessions such as cognitive behavioral therapy. This will help your doctor identify thought patterns and address the stress that might be instrumental in the manifestation of certain physical symptoms. 
  • In case of existing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, your doctor might prescribe medications such as anxiolytics and antidepressants, to better manage your symptoms. 
  • The doctor might supplement mental health treatment plans with symptomatic medications for psychosomatic pain and other physical symptoms such as insomnia or indigestion. Symptomatic treatments allow doctors to address the physical aspects of the disorder. 
  • However, symptomatic medications are not necessary in all cases. In many instances, cognitive behavioral therapy and stress management show lasting results. 

psychosomatic illnesses

Potential Complications

Left untreated, psychosomatic disorders can lead to:

  • Serious conditions such as major depressive disorder. 
  • Difficulty in managing everyday tasks and responsibilities. 
  • Suicidal ideation and an increased risk of self-harm. 
  • Pronounced physical disabilities due to aggravated physical symptoms of the condition. 

Following the doctor’s advice and keeping track of appointments is the best way to avoid complications resulting from psychosomatic illnesses. 

What You Can Do to Improve the Outlook 

As much as medical and psychological management aid with improvement, it is also important to follow certain practices to improve recovery:

  • Don’t forget to reach out for help
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco
  • Keep a track of your mood swings by using a journal 
  • Try to get sufficient sleep every night 
  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Indulge in regular physical activity whenever possible 
  • Monitor your body weight within optimal limits
  • Remain in close contact with loved ones 
  • Practice relaxation techniques and meditation 
  • Try to cultivate healthy coping mechanisms, such as hobbies 

Don’t forget to reach out to your doctor if you have concerns about your symptoms, and require help in stress management. Be sure to contact emergency services immediately if you or a loved one shows suicidal tendencies. Be upfront with your caregivers and describe each symptom and thought in detail to allow them to help you better. Psychosomatic diseases can be the cause of great distress, however, help is available.