MEDICALLY UNEXPLAINED SYMPTOMS, EXPLAINED
When you’re experiencing unusual or painful symptoms and the doctors don’t have an easy answer, you may have a medically unexplained symptom (MUS), which is defined as a symptom “not accounted for by organ disease or a structural abnormality after running medical tests,” according to David D. Clarke, MD, president of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association, who specializes in these difficult-to-diagnose problems. Unfortunately, he says that most physicians lack formal training in how to evaluate whether there’s a psychological cause for physical symptoms, so they often find these patients very frustrating.
Patients with no answers must feel frustrated too. And this isn’t a small problem. Physical symptoms caused by a mental disorder afflict about one in six adults, according to Dr. Clarke, who’s personally treated over 7,000 patients suffering from MUS. He says common mental causes include stress, anxiety, depression, lack of self-care skills, PTSD, and the lasting impact of childhood traumas. When emotional factors cause physical symptoms, the condition is called somatisation, and, if it’s severe or long-term, a somatoform disorder.
If testing and medical evaluations haven’t turned up a physical cause, doctors and patients should consider the person’s mental health. One barrier to faster identification of a somatoform disorder is that patients often don’t even know they’re dealing with major emotions. “This lack of awareness of emotions is common in people with stress-related symptoms, particularly when they are survivors of a dysfunctional childhood,” Dr. Clarke explains.