Somatic symptoms, hypochondriasis and psychological distress: a study of somatisation in Australian general practice

Med J Aust. 2008 Nov 17;189(10):560-4. doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2008.tb02180.x.


Objective: To measure the prevalence of somatisation (multiple somatic symptoms and hypochondriasis) among Australian general practice attendees, its recognition by general practitioners, and its relationship with symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Design, setting and participants: Self-reported questionnaires completed by 10 507 consecutive patients aged > or =18 years attending 340 GPs enrolled in a 6-hour national mental health program of continuing professional development who accepted invitations to participate; audit form completed by GPs for each patient during the period March 2004 to December 2006.

Main outcome measures: Somatic symptom severity (measured with the 15-item Patient Health Questionnaire [PHQ-15]); hypochondriasis (measured with the Whiteley Index [Whiteley-7]; depression and anxiety (measured by the Kessler Psychological Distress scale [K10]); prevalence of "somatisers" (defined by medium to severe somatic symptom severity and hypochondriasis); GP recognition of somatisation (determined by their responses on audit forms to questions on whether patient's complaints were most likely to have a physical or psychological explanation).

Results: 18.5% of patients were classified as somatisers and 9.5% as probable cases of depression or anxiety. While 29.6% of somatisers had high anxiety or depression scores, 57.9% of people with anxiety or depression were also somatisers. Sex and age asserted significant but weak effects on psychometric scores. GPs identified somatic complaints as "mostly explained by a psychological disturbance" in 25.1% of somatisers.

Conclusions: Somatisation is common in general practice, and more prevalent than depression or anxiety. While a minority of somatisers have significant anxiety and depression, most patients with depression and anxiety have a significant degree of somatisation. Recognition of depression and anxiety can be hindered by a somatic presentation and attribution. On the other hand, managing somatisation does not just involve recognising depression and anxiety, but also dealing with the health anxieties that underpin hypochondriasis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Family Practice / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Psychological Tests
  • Risk Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis
  • Somatoform Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnosis
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology*
  • Young Adult