The natural history of somatization in primary care

Psychol Med. 1999 May;29(3):669-76. doi: 10.1017/s0033291799008417.


Background: Somatization is often regarded as a chronic disorder. However, empirical studies to support this view and to determine its natural history in primary care are lacking. This paper provides data on the incidence and persistence of current somatization syndrome in a large cross-national sample drawn from 15 sites in 14 countries.

Methods: After screening with the General Health Questionnaire, a stratified sample of 5438 primary care patients was interviewed with the Composite International Diagnostic Interview and evaluated for physical health status, self-rated overall health and for occupational disability. Twelve months later, 3204 of the patients completed follow-up interviews.

Results: Over a 12-month period, an abridged form of somatization defined as four current symptoms in males and six in females was persistent in 45.9% of the patients. Persistence of syndrome was related to age and to subjective indices of psychological distress at baseline. Persistence was unrelated to depression. The 12-month incidence of the abridged somatization syndrome was 7.1% (95% CI, 6.1-8.3%). Individuals with depression at baseline and those with poor view of their health were more likely to develop new episodes of somatization 12-months later.

Conclusion: Somatization syndrome showed considerable change over time. Persistence and onset of somatization were related to both level of psychopathology and health beliefs.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Somatoform Disorders / epidemiology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires