Objective: To determine whether psychological symptoms and mental disorder are an intrinsic part of the chronic widespread pain syndrome or whether they have been observed in clinic attenders primarily because of their influence on the decision to seek a medical consultation.
Methods: A population survey of 1953 subjects was conducted in the Greater Manchester area of the United Kingdom. The survey included a postal questionnaire, and in a subgroup of respondents with high levels of distress, the presence of mental disorder was assessed by a semistructured standardized interview. Subjects with chronic widespread pain were classified according to whether they had sought a medical consultation for the reported pain ("consulters") or not ("nonconsulters").
Results: In all, 252 subjects (13%) satisfied American College of Rheumatology criteria for chronic widespread pain, and of these 72% reported having consulted a general practitioner about this pain. There was a clear difference in levels of psychological distress, measured by the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), between consulters, nonconsulters, and those with no pain. Consulters did not differ from nonconsulters in terms of levels of fatigue, social dysfunction, or number of somatic symptoms reported. Although consulters (among whom one in 4 had a mental disorder) were more likely to have a mental disorder than subjects without pain [OR = 4.9, 95% CI (2.6, 9.5)] the increase in risk comparing consulters to nonconsulters [OR = 2.1, 95% CI (0.7, 5.9)] and nonconsulters to subjects without pain [OR = 1.4, 95% CI (0.7, 2.6)] was not significant.
Conclusion: The results suggest that psychological distress is associated with chronic widespread pain in addition to any effect on whether consultation is sought for symptoms. The finding that one-quarter of consulters to primary care with chronic widespread pain have a mental disorder should alert primary care physicians and rheumatologists to screen for mental disorder in this group.