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Many HIV-infected people experience somatic symptoms, including insomnia, pain, fatigue, poor appetite, weight changes, and sexual dysfunction. Although somatic symptoms are rarely life threatening, they occur frequently, are often overlooked, are difficult to treat, and adversely affect quality of life. Somatic symptoms are not diagnostic of any particular disorders. Instead, they are commonly multifactorial and often coexist with medical and/or psychiatric conditions.
This chapter addresses the presentation, effects, and management of somatic symptoms from a mental health perspective that includes discussion of medical causes. The importance of assessing patients for medical causes of somatic symptoms cannot be overstated, particularly when multiple symptoms present concomitantly. Any of the symptoms could be an indication of a medical condition, mental health disorder, or both. For example, symptoms such as abdominal pain, fatigue, and weight loss require careful assessment. Untreated or undertreated mental health disorders can worsen patients' somatic symptoms and result in substantial emotional suffering, possibly leading to serious morbidity, even suicide.
Comprehensive medical diagnostic and treatment considerations for HIV-infected adults are available in the Clinical Guidelines for the Treatment of HIV-Infected Adults.
Clinicians should assess for new somatic symptoms at each visit with direct questions that elicit accurate responses from patients.
Routine screening for somatic symptoms is essential because some patients may not consider their symptoms important until significant morbidity has resulted. In addition, the multifactorial nature of somatic symptoms may prevent patients from precisely articulating their symptoms. Clinicians should assess for new somatic symptoms at each visit with direct questions that elicit accurate responses from patients.
The questions listed below are included in the Patient Health Questionnaire 15-Item Somatic Symptom Severity Scale (PHQ-15) and detail symptoms that account for 90% of somatic symptoms encountered in the primary care setting.1
During the past 4 weeks, how much have you been bothered by any of the following problems?
These questions are scored as 0 ("not bothered"), 1 ("bothered a little"), and 2 ("bothered a lot") to help clinicians determine both the number of symptoms a patient may be experiencing and the severity of the symptoms. Total PHQ-15 scores of 5, 10, and 15 represent cutoff values for low, medium, and high somatic symptom severity, respectively.
Clinicians should treat both the underlying cause of the somatic symptoms and the symptoms themselves.
Clinicians should refer patients to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist when:
Once the presence of somatic symptoms has been established, the cause of the symptoms should be determined (see Table 1). Baseline and annual physical examination and mental health and substance use screening can ensure that possible underlying etiologies are identified and that patients receive timely treatment for any comorbid disorders.
The distinction between a medical disorder and a mental health disorder is not always clear. For example, depression accompanies a variety of medical disorders and is independently associated with physiological changes in the body. Back pain, headache, abdominal pain, weight loss, and fatigue can all be somatic manifestations of depression. Shortness of breath, palpitations, abdominal pain, and dizziness can be manifestations of anxiety. Schizophrenia, bipolar mania, and other psychiatric disorders can all present with somatic symptoms.
Identification of a medical disorder does not exclude the existence of a mental health or substance use disorder. Poor physical health is frequently accompanied by a mental health disorder, particularly depression.2
Patients with mental health disorders may also present with somatic delusions. A somatic delusion is a false fixed belief of suffering from a disease that does not exist. For example, the depressed patient may say, My body is rotting inside. Somatic symptoms and somatic delusions, in the context of severe mental health disorders, can lead to self-destructive behaviors, including intentional or unintentional self-harm or suicide. Early identification and appropriate referral and treatment can be lifesaving in these cases.
For a comprehensive discussion regarding suicide assessment and treatment, refer to Suicidality and Violence in Patients With HIV/AIDS. Information regarding depression and mania can be found in Depression and Mania in Patients With HIV/AIDS.
Assignment of symptoms to malingering or somatoform disorders, such as hypochondriasis, requires a careful initial assessment for other causes. When malingering or a somatoform disorder is suspected, consultation with a psychiatrist may be necessary for confirmation.
|Table 1: Assessment for Disorders Associated With Somatic Symptoms|
|Mental Health and Substance Use Assessment|
|Mental health assessment||
|Substance use assessment||
The management of somatic symptoms in combination with existing chronic illnesses, drug side effects and interactions, and the psychological and emotional state of the patient is a clinical challenge. When physical health disorders are accompanied by mental health disorders, it is important to treat both simultaneously. Knowledge about potential drug-drug interactions, dosing, and side effects is essential. Psychiatric medications and psychotherapy may be required in addition to medical treatment.
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