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Hypochondriacs Cost Our Healthcare Industry Billions

Hypochondria is a debilitating condition that extends far beyond a harmless obsession with imaginary illness.

Photo Credit: Dormstormer


“What’s the matter?” “I have a headache,” “Maybe it’s a tumor?” “It’s not a tumor!”  In pop culture, we like to poke fun at individuals who fuss over every little ailment with numerous TV characters based on those who possess hypochondriac personas. However, for the sufferer, living each day in constant fear of contracting a serious life-threatening illness is no laughing matter. 

Hypochondriasis, as it was previously known in the medical field, is a serious mental condition that places a major physical, emotional and financial strain not only on the sufferer, but also on relationships, family members and the entire health care industry.  To date, there has not been significant medical research dedicated to understanding the condition and many doctors are unsure about how to manage patients who exhibit symptoms.  A working definition was only formulated in the last few decades by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which defined the disorder as, “the fear or belief of serious illness that persists six months or more despite physician reassurance."

More recently in May 2013, the condition was re-termed Illness Anxiety Disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the APA in an effort to shift the focus away from the symptoms of the condition and instead toward the abnormal behavior and feelings evoked by the symptoms. This made it clear that this is primarily a mental disorder where people worry excessively and unnecessarily about medical problems.

In the absence of concrete medical studies it is uncertain how many people actually suffer from illness anxiety disorder, but according to Brian Fallon, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of  Phantom Illness: Recognizing, Understanding and Overcoming Hypochondria, at least 25 percent of patient visits to doctors are believed to have no identifiable medical cause.  Moreover, approximately 12 percent of the population suffers from some form of a fear of illness.

“A factor that contributes to illness anxiety disorder is a person’s genetic makeup," Fallon told AlterNet. "If you have genes in your family aiding obsessional anxiety, it is likely you will suffer from obsessional anxiety. It is also true that if you grew up as a child where a parent was quite ill or suddenly afflicted with serious illness then this can create a channeled fear that you will develop a disease and also adds to a lack of trust in the world. Others can develop the disorder after losing a loved one to a serious illness or as a secondary illness to depression or anxiety disorder." 

Sometimes, the condition is so extreme that individuals can actually experience physical symptoms created through the mind. Such worry wreaks havoc on the immune system causing a lack of sleep and severe anxiety which can lead to further physiological conditions.  As Arthur Barsky of Harvard Medical School and author of Worried Sick: Our Troubled Quest for Wellness told   WebMD, the illness then becomes part of the hypochondriac’s identity and as a result, the individual’s work, family and relationships begin to suffer.

“Contrary to what some skeptics think, hypochondriacs are not pretending or just trying to get attention.  They're absolutely not fakers or malingerers […] They really feel the distress they're talking about. It's just that their feelings don't have an obvious medical basis,” Barsky said.

So how does one differentiate between a hypochondriac and a person merely concerned about their health? According to Benjamin Liptzin, chair of the department of psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, the primary distinction lies in the extent to which a person believes he or she has a serious illness. As he explained to AlterNet: