Pronounced: MUN-chow-zins Sin-dromeEn Español (Spanish Version)
Munchausen syndrome is a mental illness in which a person exaggerates or makes up an illness or injury. Munchausen syndrome belongs to a group of mental illnesses called “factitious disorders,” in which patients compulsively simulate a physical or mental illness. This condition can be treated. Contact a doctor if you think you or someone you know may have Munchausen syndrome.
A related condition is known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. This almost always involves a parent abusing her child by seeking unneeded medical attention for the child.
A similar condition to Munchausen syndrome is called malingering. Health experts have been able to differentiate Munchausen syndrome from cases of malingering, which often occur in a work environment. Those who suffer from Munchausen syndrome are most often seeking comfort and solace for their (imagined) sickness, while malingerers most often want tangible rewards at work (eg, paid sick leave or worker’s compensation).
Receiving Medical Treatment
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Some causes of Munchausen syndrome include:
- Psychological, compulsive drive to be treated as an ill patient
- Severe emotional difficulties
The following factors increase your chances of developing Munchausen syndrome. If you or someone you know has any of these risk factors, tell a doctor:
If you or someone you know experiences any of these symptoms (below) do not assume Munchausen syndrome is the cause. These symptoms may be attributed to other health conditions. If you or someone you know experiences any one of them, see a physician.
- Dramatic, inconsistent medical history
- Unclear and uncontrollable symptoms
- Relapses following improvement of condition
- Extensive knowledge of hospitals and medical terminology
- Multiple surgical scars
- Appearance of new symptoms after negative test results
- History of treatment at numerous hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices
- Attempts to avoid communication between previous and current healthcare providers, and between healthcare providers and family members
- Symptoms that appear only when patient is alone or unobserved
- Insistence on and even enthusiasm about medical tests or procedures
- Self-inflicted/simulated signs and symptoms of disease
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Depending on your symptoms, he or she will perform various diagnostic tests and procedures.
If your doctor rules out any possible illness, he or she may then refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist, who will determine if you have Munchausen syndrome based on the exclusion of actual physical or (other) mental illness and an assessment of your attitude and behavior.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Munchausen’s syndrome is very difficult to treat successfully. Patients often simply leave the care of physicians who attempt to diagnose/treat the disorder, and seek treatment for their simulated illness from some other unknowing source.
Treatment options include the following:
- Psychotherapy—Counseling sessions will focus on changing the patient's thinking and behavior to reduce your misuse or overuse of medical resources.
- Family counseling—The psychiatrist or psychologist will counsel the patient or the patient’s family in learning how to avoid rewarding or reinforcing the behavior.
- Legal interventions—In some cases, legal interventions are required in an attempt to prevent a patient with Munchausen’s syndrome from procuring medical services and/or medications under fraudulent circumstances.
American Academy of Family Physicians
American Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Ontario Psychiatric Association
Huffman JC, Stern TA. The diagnosis and treatment of Munchausen syndrome. Gen Hosp Psychiatry . 2003;25:358-363.
Meehan WJ, Adelman SA. Opioid abuse.
Munchausen syndrome. Cleveland Clinic website. Available at: http://www.clevelandclinic.org/health/health-info/docs/2800/2821.asp?index=9833 . Accessed February 13, 2008.
Purcell TB. Factitious disorders and malingering. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice . 6th edition. Philadelphia: Mosby; 2006.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Rosalyn Carson-Dewitt, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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