How to assess common somatic symptoms in large-scale studies: a systematic review of questionnaires

J Psychosom Res. 2013 Jun;74(6):459-68. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2013.03.093. Epub 2013 Apr 24.


Objective: Many questionnaires for assessment of common somatic symptoms or functional somatic symptoms are available and their use differs greatly among studies. The prevalence and incidence of symptoms are partially determined by the methods used to assess them. As a result, comparison across studies is difficult. This article describes a systematic review of self-report questionnaires for somatic symptoms for use in large-scale studies and recommends two questionnaires for use in such studies.

Methods: A literature search was performed in the databases Medline, PsycINFO and EMBASE. Articles that reported the development, evaluation, or review of a self-report somatic symptom measure were included. Instrument evaluation was based on validity and reliability, and their fitness for purpose in large scale studies, according to the PhenX criteria.

Results: The literature search identified 40 questionnaires. The number of items within the questionnaires ranged from 5 to 78 items. In 70% of the questionnaires, headaches were included, followed by nausea/upset stomach (65%), shortness of breath/breathing trouble (58%), dizziness (55%), and (low) back pain/backaches (55%). Data on validity and reliability were reported and used for evaluation.

Conclusion: Questionnaires varied regarding usability and burden to participants, and relevance to a variety of populations and regions. Based on our criteria, the Patient Health Questionnaire-15 and the Symptom Checklist-90 somatization scale seem the most fit for purpose for use in large-scale studies. These two questionnaires have well-established psychometric properties, contain relevant symptoms, are relatively short, and are available in multiple languages.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Dizziness / diagnosis
  • Dyspnea / diagnosis
  • Headache / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / diagnosis
  • Nausea / diagnosis
  • Psychometrics
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Surveys and Questionnaires*
  • Symptom Assessment / methods*