Help for hypochondria

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: February 21st, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Popular wisdom says doctors can’t help hypochondriacs.

After all, people determined to believe they have serious, undiagnosed illnesses tend to disregard evidence to the contrary.

Nonetheless, hypochondriacs account for an estimated one in twenty visits to primary-care physicians, delaying treatment for everyone else.

So, should doctors simply refuse to see suspected hypochondriacs? Experts say no, for three reasons:

First, hypochondria might not be the problem. The condition is hard to diagnose, and people develop obsessive health concerns for many reasons.

The second reason is that hypochondriacs do get sick. Without medical attention, real problems may go untreated.

The third reason is that physicians have a chance of convincing hypochondriacs to see mental-health professionals.

To do this, a doctor can suggest that the mystery symptoms might be caused by hypersensitivity to ordinary sensations. Another approach is to admit to being baffled and say the only thing left to do is help the patient cope with distress.

Either way, the doctor’s train of thought leads to a psychologist’s office.

One treatment option called cognitive behavioral therapy shows promise for helping hypochondriacs recover. Its objective is to change the way patients think about illness.

Of course, preventing hypochondria would be nice. But scientists aren’t sure what causes the condition.

Even if hypochondriacs are a permanent feature of the medical landscape, there’s a bright side.

In their zeal to find terminal illnesses lurking behind coughs and headaches, hypochondriacs remind doctors… and the rest of us… that sometimes disappointment is a good thing.