The Meaning of Symptoms in 10 Women with Somatization Disorder and a History of Childhood Abuse

Diane S. Morse, Anthony L. Suchman, Richard M. Frankel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

19 Scopus citations


Objective: To understand the associated experiences and illness behavior in patients with somatization disorder and a history of childhood abuse. Design: In-depth interviews were conducted with patients who had somatization disorder and a history of childhood abuse; qualitative content analysis was then performed. Setting: Patients were recruited from 2 primary care teaching practices. Participants: Physicians were asked to refer patients suspected of having both conditions, yielding 21 potential participants. Eight declined, and 3 did not meet standardized screening questionnaire criteria, yielding 10 women who participated in the study. Participants and nonparticipants had a similar range of socioeconomic variables. Results: An analysis of the interviews yielded 22 themes. Seven themes relevant to understanding the link between illness behavior and abuse were the abuse experiences, emotional and behavioral reactions to the abuse, relationship of abuse to somatoform symptoms, relationship of abuse to health care use, attempts to tell about the abuse, relationships with physicians, and physician behavior. Childhood attempts to tell adults about the abuse resulted in threats of punishment, contributing to lifelong patterns of secrecy, even with physicians. Six women reported having childhood physicians who were family members, friends, or the abuser's physician, reinforcing their subsequent secrecy. The women reported that their current physicians denied their physical pain as adults, just as the abusers denied their emotional and physical pain in childhood. Seven women reported decreased health care use once they associated symptoms with abuse experiences. Nine women reported spousal abuse. Conclusions: Somatization and childhood abuse may involve a paradoxical pattern of hiding feelings and reality, while seeking acknowledgment of suffering. Patient insight may decrease health care use. Therefore, the exploration of patient experiences may be useful for women with somatization disorder and a history of childhood abuse. The risks of spousal abuse and denial and rejection in the physician-patient relationship could also be important.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)468-476
Number of pages9
JournalArchives of Family Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jan 1 1997
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)

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