To examine how the type and number of physical symptoms reported by primary care patients are related to psychiatric disorders and functional impairment. Outpatient mental health survey. Four primary care clinics. One thousand adult clinic patients, of whom 631 were selected randomly or consecutively and 369 by convenience. Psychiatric disorders as determined by the Primary Care Evaluation of Mental Disorders procedure; the presence or absence of 15 common physical symptoms and whether symptoms were somatoform (ie, lacked an adequate physical explanation); and functional status as determined by the Medical Outcomes Study Short-form General Health Survey. Each of the 15 common symptoms was frequently somatoform (range, 16% to 33%). The presence of any physical symptom increased the likelihood of a diagnosis of a mood or anxiety disorder by at least twofold to threefold, and somatoform symptoms had a particularly strong association with psychiatric disorders. The likelihood of a psychiatric disorder increased dramatically with increasing numbers of physical symptoms. The prevalence of a mood disorder in patients with 0 to 1, 2 to 3, 4 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 or more symptoms was 2%, 12%, 23%, 44%, and 60%, respectively, and the prevalence of an anxiety disorder was 1%, 7%, 13%, 30%, and 48%, respectively. Finally, each physical symptom was associated with significant functional impairment; indeed, the number of physical symptoms was a powerful correlate of functional status. The number of physical symptoms is highly predictive for psychiatric disorders and functional impairment. Multiple or unexplained symptoms may signify a potentially treatable mood or anxiety disorder.
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