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Somatoform Disorders

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By Marianne Belleza, R.N.

Somatoform disorders are characterized by physical symptoms suggesting medical disease but without demonstrable organic pathology or a known pathophysiological mechanism to account for them.

Learn all about somatoform disorders in this nursing guide including the types, causes, clinical manifestations, medical management, and nursing management.

Table of Contents

What are Somatoform Disorders?

Somatoform disorders refer to a group of mental health conditions where individuals experience physical symptoms or complaints that cannot be fully explained by any underlying medical condition or organic pathology. These disorders are characterized by the presence of persistent and distressing physical symptoms that significantly affect the person’s daily life, yet there is no identifiable medical cause.

Types of Somatoform Disorders

  • Somatization disorder. Somatization disorder is a chronic syndrome of multiple somatic symptoms that cannot be explained medically and are associated with psychosocial distress and long-term seeking of assistance from healthcare professionals.
  • Pain disorder. The essential feature of pain disorder is severe and prolonged pain that causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  • Hypochondriasis (Illness Anxiety Disorder). People with this disorder have a preoccupation with fears of having a serious medical illness, despite medical reassurance that there is no such illness or the symptoms are mild.
  • Conversion disorder (Functional Neurological Symptom Disorder). In this disorder, individuals experience neurological-like symptoms, such as weakness, paralysis, seizures, or difficulty swallowing, without any detectable neurological cause.
  • Body dysmorphic disorder. This disorder, formerly called dysmorphophobia, is characterized by the exaggerated belief that the body is deformed or defective in some specific way.


The pathophysiology of somatoform disorders is unknown.

  • Primary somatoform disorders may be associated with a heightened awareness of normal bodily sensations.
  • This heightened awareness may be paired with a cognitive bias to interpret any physical symptom as indicative of medical illness.
  • Autonomic arousal may be high in some patients with somatoform disorders.
  • This autonomic arousal may be associated with physiologic effects of endogenous noradrenergic compounds such as tachycardia or gastric hypermotility.
  • Heightened arousal also may induce muscle tension and pain associated with muscular hyperactivity, as is seen with muscle tension headaches.

Statistics and Incidences

Prevalence rates for the most restrictive previous diagnosis of somatoform disorder appear low in community samples (0.1%).

  • One review estimates that the prevalence of somatoform disorder in the general population is approximately 5%-7%.
  • A study in Belgium reported that somatoform disorder is the third highest psychiatric disorder, with a prevalence rate of 8.9%
  • Females tend to present with somatoform disorder more frequently than males, with an estimated F:M ratio of 10:1.
  • Somatoform disorders may begin in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood

Causes of Somatoform Disorders

Predisposing factors to somatoform disorders include:

  • Genetic. Studies have shown an increased incidence of somatization disorder, conversion disorder, and hypochondriasis in first-degree relatives, implying a possible inheritable disposition.
  • Biochemical. Decreased levels of serotonin and endorphins may play a role in the etiology of pain disorder.
  • Psychodynamic. Some psychodynamics view hypochondriasis as an ego defense mechanism; the psychodynamic theory of conversion disorder proposes that emotions associated with a traumatic event that the individual cannot express because of moral or ethical unacceptability are “converted” into physical symptoms.
  • Family dynamics. Some families have difficulty expressing emotions openly and resolving conflicts verbally; when this occurs, the child may become ill, and a shift in focus is made  from the open conflict to the child’s illness, leaving unresolved the underlying issues that the family cannot confront openly.
  • Sociocultural/familial factors. Somatic complaints are often reinforced when the sick role relieves the individual from the need to deal with a stressful situation, whether it be within the society or within the family.
  • Past experience with physical illness. Personal experience, or the experience of close family members with serious or life-threatening illness can predispose an individual  to hypochondriasis.
  • Cultural and environmental factors. Some cultures and religions carry implicit sanctions against verbalizing or directly expressing emotional states, thereby indirectly encouraging “more acceptable” somatic behaviors.

Clinical Manifestations

Symptoms of somatoform disorder include:

  • Pain symptoms. Complaints of headache, pain in the abdomen, head, joints, back, chest, rectum; pain during urination, menstruation, or sexual intercourse.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms. There is nausea, bloating, vomiting (other than during pregnancy), diarrhea, or intolerance of several foods.
  • Sexual symptoms. Sexual indifference, erectile or ejaculatory dysfunction, irregular menses, excessive menstrual bleeding, and vomiting through pregnancy.
  • Pseudoneurologic symptoms. Conversion symptoms such as impaired coordination or balance, paralysis or localized weakness, difficulty swallowing or lump in throat, aphonia, urinary retention, hallucinations, loss of touch or pain sensation, double vision, blindness, deafness, and seizures.

Assessment and Diagnostic Findings

If indicated, specific studies used to rule out somatization due to general medical conditions include the following:

  • Thyroid function studies. Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) at 0.4-10 mIU/L and thyroxine at 5.0-12.5 ng/dL.
  • Pheochromocytoma screen. Urine catecholamines, homovanillic acid (HVA) 2-12 mg per 24 hours, vanillylmandelic acid (VMA) 2-7 mg per 24 hours, metanephrines less than 1.6 mg per 24 hours, and norepinephrine plus epinephrine less than 100 mcg per 24 hours.
  • Urine drug screen. Including cannabis, amphetamine, hallucinogens, cocaine, opioids, and benzodiazepines.
  • Blood studies. To screen for occult alcoholism.
  • Psychological testing. Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) may provide insight into the likelihood of a somatic symptom disorder.

Medical Management of Somatoform Disorders

Randomized trials have demonstrated the value of physician education in the management of the patient with somatoform disorder.

  • Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy strategies may be specifically helpful in reducing distress and high medical use.
  • Psychosocial therapies. Psychosocial interventions directed by phsyicians form the basis for successful treatment; a strong relationship between the patient and the primary care physician can assist in long-term management.
  • Psychoeducation. Psychoeducation can be helpful by letting the patient know that physical symptoms may be exacerbated by anxiety or other emotional problems; however, be careful because patients are likely to resist suggestions that their condition is due to emotional rather than physical problems.

Pharmacologic Management

Based on studies of somatoform disorder, medication approaches rarely are successful for this condition.

  • Antidepressants. SSRIs are greatly preferred over the other classes of antidepressants; because the adverse effect profile of SSRIs is less prominent, improved compliance is promoted.

Nursing Management of Somatoform Disorders

Nursing management of a patient with somatoform disorders include the following:

Nursing Assessment

The nurse must investigate physical health status thoroughly to ensure there is no underlying pathology requiring treatment.

  • History. Clients usually provide a lengthy and detailed account of previous physical problems, numerous diagnostic tests, and perhaps even a number of surgical procedures.
  • General appearance and motor behavior. Often, clients walk slowly or with an unusual gait because of the pain or disability caused by the symptoms; they may exhibit a facial expression of discomfort or physical distress.
  • Mood and affect. Mood is often labile, shifting from seeming depressed and sad when describing physical problems to looking bright and excited when talking about how they had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night by ambulance.
  • Thought process and content. Clients who somatize do not experience disordered thought processes; the content of their thinking is primarily about often exaggerated physical concerns, for example, when they have a simple cold they may be convinced it is pneumonia.

Nursing Diagnosis for Somatoform Disorders

Based on the assessment data, the major nursing diagnoses are:

Nursing Care Planning and Goals

The major nursing care plan goals for patients with somatoform disorders are:

  • The client will identify the relationship between stress and physical symptoms.
  • The client will verbally express emotional feelings.
  • The client will follow an established daily routine.
  • The client will demonstrate alternative ways to deal with stress, anxiety, and other feelings.
  • The client will demonstrate healthier behaviors regarding rest, activity, and nutritional intake.

Nursing Interventions

The nursing interventions for somatoform disorders are:

  • Providing health teaching. The nurse must help the client establish a daily routine that includes improved health behaviors.
  • Assisting the client to express emotions. Clients may keep a detailed journal of their physical symptoms; the nurse might ask them to describe the situation at the time such as whether they were alone or with others, whether any disagreements were occurring, and so forth.
  • Teaching coping strategies. Emotion-focused strategies include progressive relaxation, deep breathing, guided imagery, and distractions such as music or other activities; problem-focused coping strategies include problem-solving methods, applying the process to identified problems, and role-playing interactions with others.


Treatment outcomes include:

  • The client was able to identify the relationship between stress and physical symptoms.
  • The client was able to verbally express emotional feelings.
  • The client was able to follow an established daily routine.
  • The client was able to demonstrate alternative ways to deal with stress, anxiety, and other feelings.
  • The client was able to demonstrate healthier behaviors regarding rest, activity, and nutritional intake.

Documentation Guidelines

Documentation in a client with somatoform disorders includes the following:

  • Individual findings include factors affecting, interactions, the nature of social exchanges, and specifics of individual behavior.
  • Cultural and religious beliefs, and expectations.
  • Plan of care.
  • Teaching plan.
  • Responses to interventions, teaching, and actions performed.
  • Attainment or progress toward the desired outcome.

References and Sources

Interesting resources for further reading about somatoform disorders:

  • Boyd, M. A. (Ed.). (2008). Psychiatric nursing: Contemporary practice. lippincott Williams & wilkins.
  • Escalada-Hernández, P., Muñoz-Hermoso, P., González–Fraile, E., Santos, B., González-Vargas, J. A., Feria-Raposo, I., … & CUISAM GROUP. (2015). A retrospective study of nursing diagnoses, outcomes, and interventions for patients with mental disorders. Applied Nursing Research28(2), 92-98. [Link]
  • Keltner, N. L. (2013). Psychiatric nursing. Elsevier Health Sciences.
  • Videbeck, S. L. (2010). Psychiatric-mental health nursing. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Marianne leads a double life, working as a staff nurse during the day and moonlighting as a writer for Nurseslabs at night. As an outpatient department nurse, she has honed her skills in delivering health education to her patients, making her a valuable resource and study guide writer for aspiring student nurses.

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