Objective: The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis that the prior experience of physical illness in childhood is associated with later experience of medically unexplained symptoms.
Method: A nested case-control study was performed within a prospective birth cohort study: the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development. The 5% most symptomatic individuals at age 36 years were identified and screened for physical illness. Subjects without defined physical diagnoses (N = 191) were compared with the remainder of the sample (N = 3,107) for childhood exposures.
Results: There was a powerful relationship between poor reported health of the parents when subjects were aged 15 years and symptoms at age 36; the relationship was independent of current psychiatric disorder. Medically unexplained symptoms were associated with abdominal pain in childhood but not with defined childhood diseases.
Conclusions: Medically unexplained symptoms appear to be related to prior experience of illness in the family and previous unexplained symptoms in the individual. This may reflect a learned process whereby illness experience leads to symptom monitoring.