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Hypochondriasis

Alternate Names

  • hypochondria

Definition

Hypochondriasis is an abnormal fear of having a serious medical condition. This concern persists even though medical exams rule out any actual illness.

What is going on in the body?

People who have this condition feel very anxious. They suffer from physical symptoms even though there is no physical illness present. An individual with this condition continues to believe that he or she is seriously ill even when the healthcare professional states otherwise. This condition is very different from disorders in which people fake medical conditions either for secondary gain or for psychological reasons.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the disease?

This condition occurs in both men and women. It is not clear what causes the problem. This condition may occur more often in people who:
  • were sick or had sick family members during childhood
  • were victims of child abuse
  • have various other psychological disorders
  • abuse drugs or alcohol

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the disease?

There is no known prevention. When a child is ill, parents should not reward sick behavior with special attention and privileges. When the child is well, parents should give children adequate love and attention.

Diagnosed

How is the disease diagnosed?

The person will first have medical exam and tests to rule out actual physical disease. If no disease is found, the diagnosis can be made through a psychological evaluation.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the disease?

The long-term effects are mostly related to the symptoms. People with this condition do not have the serious physical disease that they think they have. However, symptoms may be so severe that the person may be unable to go to work or school. The problem may also put stress on personal relationships.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

This condition poses no physical risk to others. However, it may be hard for family members to deal with the affected person. People with this condition may demand attention and be difficult to live with. The family may even need counseling to help handle the situation.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the disease?

A person with this disease has real symptoms even if there is no underlying illness. The first goal of treatment is to reduce these symptoms. A healthcare professional should continue to see the person on a regular basis for monitoring, reassurance, and to treat symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Counseling for the person and the family is essential. People with this condition have a hard time accepting that they do not have a serious physical illness. Medications such as tranquilizers may help the person cope with feelings of anxiety. Medications may also be used to treat any depression.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Tranquilizers and other medications all have potential side effects, including drowsiness. Alcohol must be avoided while taking tranquilizers. Usually, the greatest risk to the person with this condition is that of having surgery or other unnecessary treatments. Time and money can be wasted on unneeded visits to healthcare professionals.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the disease?

This condition does not respond well to treatment. Most people with hypochondriasis will always believe that they have a serious disease. They may go from one healthcare professional to another to try to get help for their symptoms, and may become angry with a professional who will not buy into their beliefs about their symptoms. There is always hope, however, that psychotherapy can help the person and his or her family deal with their symptoms more effectively.

Monitor

How is the disease monitored?

Both a primary medical professional and a mental health professional usually monitor the disease. The medical professional will continue to treat the physical symptoms that the person has. The mental health professional will provide counseling for the person and the family. Regular follow-up visits can help people deal with symptoms.

Sources

Hypochondriasis, American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Washington, DC, 1994

Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness and Surgery, H. Winter Griffith, M.D., 1995, The Putnam Berkley Group

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