The Meaning of Patient Experiences of Medically Unexplained Physical Symptoms

Qual Health Res. 2016 Feb;26(3):367-76. doi: 10.1177/1049732314566326. Epub 2015 Jan 12.


Current diagnostic models in medical practice do not adequately account for patient symptoms that cannot be classified. At the moment, when all known diagnostic possibilities have been excluded, physicians-and patients-confront uncertainty in diagnosis, which gives rise to the label of Medically Unexplained Physical Symptoms (MUPS). This phenomenological study, conducted by two research teams in two geographic locations, sought to explore patients' experiences of prolonged uncertainty in diagnosis. Participants in this study described their experiences with and consequences of MUPS primarily in relation to levels of acuity and acceptance of uncertainty, the latter loosely correlated to length of time since onset of symptoms (the longer the time, the more forbearance participants expressed). We identified three experiential periods including the active search for a diagnosis, living with MUPS, and, finally, acceptance/resignation of their condition. Findings point to the heightened importance of the therapeutic relationship when dealing with uncertainty.

Keywords: medically unexplained physical symptoms; patient experiences of health care; phenomenology; qualitative research interviewing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Canada
  • Humans
  • Patients / psychology*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Uncertainty*