The Amplification of Symptoms in the Medically Ill

J Gen Intern Med. 2023 Jan;38(1):195-202. doi: 10.1007/s11606-022-07699-8. Epub 2022 Jul 12.


The mechanism of symptom amplification, developed in the study of somatization, may be helpful in caring for patients with symptoms that, while they have a demonstrable medical basis, are nonetheless disproportionately severe and distressing. Amplified medical symptoms are marked by disproportionate physical suffering, unduly negative thoughts and concerns about them, and elevated levels of health-related anxiety. They are accompanied by extensive and sustained illness behaviors, disproportionate difficulty compartmentalizing them and circumscribing their impact, and consequent problems and dissatisfaction with their medical care. A distinction has long been made between "medically explained" and "medically unexplained" symptoms. However, a more comprehensive view of symptom phenomenology undermines this distinction and places all symptoms along a smooth continuum regardless of cause: Recent findings in cognitive neuroscience suggest that all symptoms-regardless of origin-are processed through convergent pathways. The complete conscious experience of both medically "explained" and "unexplained" symptoms is an amalgam of a viscerosomatic sensation fused with its ascribed salience and the patient's ideas, expectations, and concerns about the sensation. This emerging empirical evidence furnishes a basis for viewing persistent, disproportionately distressing symptoms of demonstrable disease along a continuum with medically unexplained symptoms. Thus, therapeutic modalities developed for somatization and medically unexplained symptoms can be helpful in the care of seriously ill medical patients with amplified symptoms. These interventions include educational groups for coping with chronic illness, cognitive therapies for dysfunctional thoughts, behavioral strategies for maladaptive illness behaviors, psychotherapy for associated emotional distress, and consultation with mental health professionals to assist the primary care physician with difficulties in medical management.

Keywords: Amplified medical symptoms; Somatization; Symptom palliation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety
  • Anxiety Disorders / therapy
  • Humans
  • Medically Unexplained Symptoms*
  • Psychotherapy
  • Somatoform Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Somatoform Disorders* / psychology
  • Somatoform Disorders* / therapy