Explaining medically unexplained symptoms

Can J Psychiatry. 2004 Oct;49(10):663-72. doi: 10.1177/070674370404901003.


Patients with medically unexplained symptoms comprise from 15% to 30% of all primary care consultations. Physicians often assume that psychological factors account for these symptoms, but current theories of psychogenic causation, somatization, and somatic amplification cannot fully account for common unexplained symptoms. Psychophysiological and sociophysiological models provide plausible medical explanations for most common somatic symptoms. Psychological explanations are often not communicated effectively, do not address patient concerns, and may lead patients to reject treatment or referral because of potential stigma. Across cultures, many systems of medicine provide sociosomatic explanations linking problems in family and community with bodily distress. Most patients, therefore, have culturally based explanations available for their symptoms. When the bodily nature and cultural meaning of their suffering is validated, most patients will acknowledge that stress, social conditions, and emotions have an effect on their physical condition. This provides an entree to applying the symptom-focused strategies of behavioural medicine to address the psychosocial factors that contribute to chronicity and disability.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Culture
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Primary Health Care
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Somatoform Disorders / ethnology
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology