Physical Illness. No Causes. Mystery Or Somatic Symptom Disorder?


imageSince I started blogging,  I have heard of, and read about, amazing things on health. However, I can say that my discovery of Somatic Symptom Disorder is by far the most fascinating. This is because it challenged a lifelong belief I’ve always held. Amidst all the westernisation of me, I still believed that any all illnesses without medical causes were results of spiritual attacks. That was until I ran into a former neighbour; “Margaret” at my local shopping mall. Initially I didn’t recognise her, in fact I almost fainted when I did. The last time I saw Margaret (one year ago), she was in a wheelchair. She was so ill that people were starting to question if she would survive. She had an illness without diagnosis (aka spiritual attack in my culture). After the usual pleasantries, I wanted to ask about her health. She immediately stopped me because she was rushing off to meet a friend. She just blurted out “google Somatic Symptom Disorder, and I’ll ring you later” and walked off.

The neighbour I knew…

Margaret is a 32 year old woman. When she was 22, she developed this pain in her stomach and lower back. According to her, she had frequent episodes of nausea and vomiting. She had irregular periods and lovemaking was painful. Margaret was convinced she had stomach cancer. She was always dizzy and eventually her legs were so numb that she couldn’t walk. What was significant about Margaret’s illness was the lack of medical causes that explained her symptoms. Her family had taken her to different hospitals, and after series of tests and one surgery, there was still no clear cut diagnosis. It was a mystery. Each time she got the all clear, she became very frustrated. Her family believed that Margaret’s illness was due to demonic attacks. I did as well. There was a conviction that an enemy cast an evil spell on her, using black magic. Before they moved house, Margaret’s health deteriorated to the point that she was wheelchair bound. She was depressed, and was always anxious.

My Google search…

I couldn’t wait to get on Google. I actually did a search on my phone as soon as she was out of sight. I found out that Somatic Symptom Disorder is a physical manifestation of psychological pain (in a nutshell). It is characterised by a person experiencing persistent physical symptoms for which no physical cause can be found. These symptoms are not feigned or intentionally made up, because the person actually feels the effects of the symptoms. The condition is serious and shouldn’t be trivialised. People with Somatic Symptom Disorder undergo several medical diagnostic tests, and no causes are found. In some cases, the symptoms are so serious that it disrupts the person’s life’s functioning. I remember Margaret stopped working and going out. She was home bound.

Scientists don’t know the absolute cause of Somatic Symptom Disorder. However, risk factors include being a female because it’s more common in females than males. Others include over sensitisation to trauma or stress, family history of the disorder, cultural practices, history of trauma and abuse. Symptoms include pain in different parts of the body, problems with sexual functioning, neurological issues such as weakness and paralysis, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting. People with Somatic Symptom Disorder usually have anxiety and depression. Diagnosis involves extensive tests to rule out conditions with similar presentations such as: multiple sclerosis, lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome. A thorough assessment of presenting symptoms are also carried out. Treatment include counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

The phone call…

I didn’t wait for Margaret to ring. I rang her as soon as my children went to bed that night. I wanted a correlation between my Google knowledge and the woman at the mall. Margaret told me that her doctor suggested she sought mental health assessment following the futility of several medical tests. She was reluctant at first, because she felt insulted that he associated her illness with mental illness. That didn’t surprise me considering the needless stigma associated with mental health illnesses. Besides, she was convinced it was a spiritual attack by “a hater”. Anyway, she said that through counselling, she was able to “reach deep” and trace the debut of her symptoms to a rape by a family member when she was 22. She didn’t disclose it because she was scared that no one would believe her. Following psychotherapies and support from mental health services, she was able to discuss the incident with members of her family. Most of her symptoms have stopped, although she still has her anxieties. Understandably, she fears the symptoms will return. Prior to dropping the phone, she stressed that not all cases of Somatic Symptom Disorder are as results of abuse, to which I added that I heard about a woman who had pains traced to the birth of her stillborn baby. I also used that opportunity to ask for her permission to publish her story. She agreed, as long as I changed her name.

Afterwards…

I sat for several minutes after the call, recounting the number of times I’ve heard people describe similar symptoms and like her, did not get any medical diagnosis. In most cases I know, they are attributed to spiritual attacks. Some people even go as far as literally accusing someone of attempted murder. I don’t assume that all cases like Margaret’s are due to Somatic Symptom Disorder. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder about the thousands of people suffering worldwide due to misdiagnosis of the condition. In cultures where beliefs steer towards spiritual explanations, treatment is likely to take that form. Most worrying are people who can self-medicate. Access to drugs which they believe would have therapeutic effects on them, may actually trigger other health conditions due to their side effects.

Oh well…

As always, science has chipped deeper into my lifelong beliefs. Yet again, what I internalised as spiritual attacks now have scientific explanations. Whatever it is, I’m glad Margaret is on her way to a full recovery. I hope others will too. Please read up on Somatic Symptom Disorder. You can never tell when a simple explanation, using new knowledge, will save a life.

2 thoughts

  1. When I was younger, one of our neighbor’s kids became very sick, so sick that she could not eat, walk or even talk. All tests came back negative and in the end her parents kept her home and took care of her. A few months later, a 100% recovery! As if she had never even been ill. It was a great mystery to us all. With this article, I’m beginning to think that she may have suffered some physical or psychological trauma. Thanks for this information. I love your blog!

    1. Thanks Ije. I also have a family member who I now question her illness. She became like Margaret after her husband died. No diagnosis and she was ill all her life. I wish we knew this.

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