Hypochondria (hy-po-KON-dree-uh) is a mental disorder in which people believe they are sick or have a serious disease, but their symptoms are not related to any physical illness and medical examination or tests show no sign of illness. Its medical name is illness anxiety disorder (IAD).
Many people worry about their health from time to time. For example, a symptom such as chest pain can have many causes and may or may not be serious. But if individuals experiencing this symptom have just read a newspaper article about someone who experienced a heart attack *
The prevalence of hypochondria among the general public is unknown, but studies have suggested that it accounts for between 4 and 9 percent of visits to doctors. Hypochondria occurs in all age groups and cultures and is about equally prevalent among males and females.
People with hypochondria may be overly concerned with a variety of symptoms and even with their normal bodily functions. Minor aches and pains, occasional coughing, dizziness, nausea, or small sores can convince people with hypochondria that they are seriously ill. They may also closely monitor normal bodily functions, such as heartbeat, breathing, sweating, and intestinal function, for signs of disease. The health worries of someone with hypochondria may be focused on a particular body organ, such as the heart, or on several parts of the body.
An important characteristic of people with hypochondria is that they are not fully reassured after a medical examination and tests have shown no physical basis for their complaints. Although their fears may be temporarily relieved, the belief that they are ill may still be so strong that they go from one physician to another seeking new tests and treatments.
People may wonder why some people are constantly worried about being sick. The cause or causes of hypochondria are not clearly understood, and experts have varying opinions.
One theory is that people who have hypochondria are excessively sensitive to their bodily sensations and may misinterpret their meaning. In some cases, hypochondria appears to be triggered by the death of a loved one. Researchers have also noted that hypochondria seems to be more common in people who were seriously ill when they were children or who have spent a lot of time around sick relatives. Such past experiences may contribute to health worries.
Hypochondria may be one symptom of another mental disorder, such as depression * or anxiety * . For example, in some cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder * , a person may have extreme unfounded health worries and feel compelled to keep seeking reassurance from health professionals.
The first step in diagnosing hypochondria is a thorough physical examination to make sure there is no medical disease or condition causing the patient's complaints. When the patient has been reassured that he or she is not ill, yet the intense health worries continue, the diagnosis of hypochondria may be made. The physician will need to take care not to confuse hypochondria with malingering * , or with such closely related mental conditions as conversion disorder * and Munchausen syndrome * .
Hypochondria can be difficult to treat because the beliefs the patient have about illness are usually very strong. Although reassurance that the person is in good health is necessary, it is likely to be helpful only for a short time. Psychotherapy can help individuals make gradual changes in the way they think about their bodily sensations and to cope with health anxiety. When hypochondria is a symptom of depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, treatment focuses on the underlying disorder.
See also Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders: Overview • Conversion Disorder
Belling, Catherine. A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Moustaki, Nikki. “How Hypochondriacs Say ‘I Love You.’” New York Times, February 20, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/style/how-hypochondriacs-say-i-love-you.html?_r=0 (accessed July 20, 2015).
MedlinePlus. “Illness Anxiety Disorder.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001236.htm (accessed June 14, 2016).
University of Maryland Medical Center. 22 S. Greene St., Baltimore, MD 21201-1595. Telephone: 410-328-8667. Website: http://www.umm.edu (accessed July 20, 2015).
University of Michigan Health System. 1500 E. Medical Center Dr., Ann Arbor, MI 48109. Telephone: 734-936-4000. Website: http://www.med.umich.edu (accessed July 20, 2015).
* heart attack is a general term that usually refers to a sudden, intense episode of heart injury. It is usually caused by a blockage of a coronary artery, which stops blood from supplying the heart muscle with oxygen.
* depression (dih-PRESH-un) is a mental state characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement.
* anxiety (ang-ZY-uh-tee) can be experienced as a troubled feeling, a sense of dread, fear of the future, or distress over a possible threat to a person's physical or mental well-being.
* obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition that causes people to become trapped in a pattern of repeated, unwanted thoughts, called obsessions (ob-SESH-unz), and a pattern of repetitive behaviors, called compulsions (kom-PUL-shunz).
* malingering (ma-LING-er-ing) means intentionally pretending to be sick or injured to avoid work or responsibility.
* conversion disorder is a mental disorder in which psychological symptoms are converted to physical symptoms, such as blindness, paralysis, or seizures. A person with conversion disorder does not intentionally produce symptoms.
* Munchausen syndrome (MUN-chow-zen SIN-drome) is a mental disorder in which a person pretends to have symptoms or causes symptoms of a disease in order to be hospitalized or receive tests, medication, or surgery.