Somatization disorder and somatoform symptoms in systematically studied survivors of 10 disasters

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Abstract

BACKGROUND

There is little agreement about the association of somatization with exposure to disaster trauma in the existing literature.

METHODS

Pre-disaster and post-disaster psychiatric disorders, somatization disorder, and individual somatoform (medically unexplained) symptoms were assessed with structured diagnostic interviews in 811 directly exposed survivors of 10 disasters.

RESULTS

Only 1 individual met criteria for post-disaster somatization disorder; there were no incident cases. Only 21% of all somatic symptoms reported were somatoform symptoms. Although 29% of the sample had ≥1 post-disaster somatoform symptoms, only 13% of the sample had any incident somatoform symptoms, and only 1.5% of the sample had >1.

CONCLUSIONS

Somatization disorder is not an observed outcome of disaster. Incidence of individual somatoform symptoms is relatively uncommon and represents a construct that is distinct from somatization disorder. Such symptoms appear to represent nonspecific distress or endemic symptoms in the population and are not necessarily causally related to the disaster. The only studies that have identified somatization symptoms in relation to disaster have used nondiagnostic symptom checklists. As illustrated by the findings from this study, nondiagnostic symptom checklists do not adequately substitute for structured diagnostic instruments in assessment of somatoform psychopathology.

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