Background: While physical symptoms are the leading reason for outpatient visits, a substantial proportion of physical complaints and "minor" illnesses remain poorly understood. The purpose of our study was to determine the prevalence, patient-attributed cause, and psychiatric comorbidity of symptoms in a general population.
Methods: We analyzed data on 13,538 individuals interviewed in the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Program, a multicommunity mental health survey that used the Diagnostic Interview Schedule to determine the prevalence of psychiatric disorders. The Diagnostic Interview Schedule inquires about 38 physical symptoms and includes a probing scheme to classify symptom severity and potential cause. We focused on 26 symptoms most germane to primary care.
Results: Of the 26 symptoms, 24 had been problems for more than 10% of persons at some point in their life, with the most common nonmenstrual symptoms being joint pains (36.7%), back pain (31.5%), headaches (24.9%), chest pain (24.6%), arm or leg pain (24.3%), abdominal pain (23.6%), fatigue (23.6%), and dizziness (23.2%). Most symptoms (84%) were at some point considered major in that they interfered with routine activities or had led individuals to take medications or visit a physician. Nearly one third of symptoms were either psychiatric or unexplained, and most symptoms were associated with at least a twofold increased lifetime risk of a common psychiatric disorder.
Conclusion: Symptoms in the community are prevalent as well as bothersome. Often lacking an apparent physical explanation, such symptoms are associated with an increased likelihood of psychiatric disorders.