Explaining medically unexplained symptoms: somatizing patients' responses in primary care

Patient Educ Couns. 2013 Oct;93(1):63-72. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2013.05.013. Epub 2013 Jun 20.


Objective: To examine (1) how physicians present an explanation of symptoms in terms of a hormonal imbalance as a means to initiate a psychosocial discussion with somatizing patients; and (2) how they respond to this explanation of symptoms.

Methods: Qualitative study of 11 sequences in which physicians explain patients' symptoms in terms of a hormonal imbalance are micro-analyzed using Conversation Analysis.

Results: Symptom explanations (SEs) were vague, tentative, and uncertain. Two patterns of SEs (general vs. specific) and five different patterns of patient response were found. Patient responses are classified according to whether they occur during or after the SE, and according to the degree of work patients carry out to verbalize a response.

Conclusion: Symptom explanations elicited varying degrees of patient agreement, and allowed physicians to obtain patients' permission to conduct a psychosocial exploration.

Practice implications: Physicians may start SEs by associating symptoms to a hormonal imbalance, and by relating them to universally recognizable emotions and familiar situations. Excessive emphasis on long and complex SEs and on seeking extended verbalizations of patient agreement may be counterproductive and antagonize the patient.

Keywords: Communication; Doctor–patient relationships; Patient centered care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Communication*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient-Centered Care
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Physicians, Primary Care*
  • Primary Health Care
  • Qualitative Research
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology*
  • Spain
  • Uncertainty*
  • Young Adult