Medically unexplained symptoms: an epidemiological study in seven specialities

J Psychosom Res. 2001 Jul;51(1):361-7. doi: 10.1016/s0022-3999(01)00223-9.


Objectives: This study aimed to estimate the prevalence and risk factors for medically unexplained symptoms across a variety of specialities.

Methods: A cross-sectional survey was conducted at two general hospitals in southeast London between 1995 and 1997. Eight hundred and ninety consecutive new patients from seven outpatient clinics were included. Demographic and clinical characteristic variables were assessed.

Results: Five hundred eighty-two (65%) of the subjects surveyed returned completed questionnaires. A final diagnosis was available in 550 (62%). Two hundred twenty-eight (52%) fulfilled criteria for medically unexplained symptoms. The highest prevalence was in the gynecology clinic (66%). After adjustment for confounders, medically unexplained symptoms were associated with being female, younger, and currently employed. Psychiatric morbidity per se was not associated with the presence of medically unexplained symptoms, but was more likely in those complaining of multiple symptoms. Those with medically unexplained symptoms were less disabled, but more likely to use alternative treatment in comparison with those whose symptoms were medically explained. Patients with medically unexplained symptoms were more likely to attribute their illness to physical causes as opposed to lifestyle factors.

Conclusions: Medically unexplained symptoms are common across general/internal medicine and represent the most common diagnosis in some specialities. Medical behavior, training, and management need to take this into account.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine*
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Specialization*