We are all a bit of a hypochondriac, when you don't feel well or something hurts; you take note and probably feel slightly anxious. However, this is extremely different than the individual who constantly reports symptoms of an acute medical illness, and is jumping from doctor to doctor for a second, third or even a fourth opinion that they can accept. Inevitably you have been on a call related to a hypochondriac; they insist that the current ailment is serious and needs immediate emergency care (even though they were cleared by the emergency department ½ an hour ago with a clean bill of health). Your biggest clue that they may have hypochondriasis is when they insist, without being asked, I am not a hypochondriac.
You have been to this residence six times in the past five months with the reporting party describing vague but life threatening symptoms. He/she demands a trip to the emergency room. You call the FD, who also knows the citizen well. Off they go to the hospital, but rarely with lights and sirens. Sometimes paramedics, exhausted of going to the same residence for the same complaint daily (or even more frequently) request police assistance to help with the problem. Or maybe you have a partner who chronically calls in ill before his assigned shift. It is not that he is seeking a Saturday off to go party or to watch the Monday night game; he actually is in bed all day treating his symptoms, worrying, and searching the Internet to self-diagnose which disease he is suffering from.
It is estimated that up to fourteen percent of the population suffer from hypochondriasis. Additionally, almost half of the population does have periods of intermittent and unfounded worry about illness; and half of this group is healthy. Think about the swine flu virus. If you have had symptoms of a cold or flu recently, it is probable that the thought of the swine flu has entered your head, and you talked to someone else about your concerns. Exaggerated concerns about health are very common in our society. Unfortunately, hypochondriasis comes with a huge price tag. In the Unites States alone, it causes over $20 billion a year in unnecessary medical procedures and examinations. That figure does not include the costs of emergency services responding to calls for service. It may, however, explain why your department takes so much money out of your check every two weeks for medical insurance!
What is Hypochondria?
Hypochondria is a somatic disorder that is characterized by the uncompromising belief that the individual has one or more serious and/or potentially life threatening medical conditions. The individual will misinterpret rather common and benign physical symptoms as a sign of serious disease, and persist in this belief in spite of reassurance from doctors. Discoloration on the skin convinces them they have a melanoma. Healthy digestive sounds are believed to be colitis, and will require surgery and a colostomy bag for life. Shortness of breath must mean the individual is having a heart attack and may need a heart transplant. Although they may admit that their fears are exaggerated, they persist in the belief that they are truly, and probably, seriously ill. Hypochondriacs go from doctor to doctor, trying to find a doctor that will confirm and treat their perceived illness.
Hypochondriacs do not fake illness; they truly believe they are ill. A hypochondriac's symptoms are not delusional; they are based on some true discomfort or pain. The individual becomes preoccupied with his/her symptoms and of all the possible catastrophic diseases he/she may have. This preoccupation frequently causes significant familial, social, and occupational impairment. It is very troublesome to those closest to the hypochondriac; you would just like to shake him into reality and scream it is all in your head, get over it! However, there is no way to talk them out of their symptoms. Additionally, there is often a secondary gain by having a perceived serious illness: attention from family, friends, co-workers, bosses, and even doctors. The hypochondriac may also be relieved from regular responsibilities.