Anxiety over one's health is common, especially with the amount of medical information that is so easily accessible. However, this anxiety can turn into a fearful obsession with developing a serious disease, known as hypochondriasis. This article describes the signs and symptoms of this disorder.
What is Hypochondriasis and How Common is It?
Although similar to obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder, hypochondriasis is considered a somatoform disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). Somatoform disorders are a group of disorders that cause the sufferer to feel physical symptoms of an undiagnosed illness that cannot be attributed to a medical condition, substance use and/or abuse or another mental disorder.
Hypochondriacs are fixated on the fear of developing or having a serious medical illness. They will misread normal body functions or distort a slight irregularity into symptoms of something graver. For example, minor aches and sore joints become fibromyalgia or shortness of breath is a sign of lung cancer.
Roughly 0.8 percent and 8.5 percent of American adults have hypochondriasis; but, this is probably an underestimate as hypochondriacs tend to seek treatment from their primary care physicians and not a trained mental health provider. Also, worrying about one’s health is quite common – about 10 percent to 20 percent of people who are well and 45 percent of people without any mental disorders still have periodic unfounded fears about their health. However, 60 percent of hypochondriacs also have a co-morbid mental disorder such as depression, anxiety disorders, OCD or panic disorders.
Signs and Symptoms
Hypochondriasis can develop at any age, but usually starts in early adulthood and occurs in men and women equally. Also, people with this condition truly believe they are suffering from a very real illness – they are not malingering (lying or faking their symptoms to attract attention).
Diagnosing hypochondriasis can be very difficult as people with the disorder are positive that a very real illness is causing their symptoms. Hypochondriasis symptoms include:
- An extreme fear or anxiety for at least six months about having a serious medical condition.
- Excessive worrying that normal bodily functions or some minor symptoms are an indication of a serious medical condition.
- A co-morbid mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety disorder or panic attacks.
- Repeated visits to their primary care physician and/or specialists for consultations or complex medical exams, such as MRIs, EKG/ECGs or exploratory surgery.
- “Doctor shopping" or repeatedly changing physicians in an attempt to confirm the self-perceived diagnosis. Generally, a physician’s reassurance of good health only causes more anxiety for the hypochondriac.
- Repeated inspection of their bodies for any irregularities, such as lumps, sores or bruises, and their vital signs, such as blood pressure, pulse or body temperature.
- Excessive worry about a particular organ or body system, such as the heart or brain, or the digestive or circulatory systems.
- Incessantly discussing physical symptoms and/or alleged medical conditions with family and friends.
- Compulsively conducting health research, especially online (cyberchondria).
- Reading or hearing about diseases, particularly through the media, leads to believing they suffer from it.
- Recently suffered a loss or had a stressful event occur.
- Preoccupation with illnesses and/or diseases begins to impede with their work, family and social lives.
Hypochondriasis can become a chronic problem if left undiagnosed and/or untreated since people with this disorder can experience hypochondriasis symptoms for months or possibly years as well as have stretches of time with no symptoms and/or fears of becoming sick at all. Please consult a physician or trained mental health provider for additional information.