This subject is of great importance to neurologists and general physicians because of its frequency. Although hysteria has been known since ancient times, many writers credit the first description of the syndrome to the French physician Briquet in 1859. Charcot later elaborated certain manifestations of the disease, particularly those with a theatrical aspect, and thereby interested Freud and Janet in the problem. Charcot demonstrated that the symptoms could be produced and relieved by hypnosis (mesmerism). Janet postulated a dissociative state of mind to account for certain features, such as trances and fugue states, a term that has reappeared in modern psychiatry. Freud and his acolytes conceived of hysterical symptoms as a product of "ego defense mechanisms" in which psychic energy, generated by unconscious sexual conflicts, was "converted" into physical symptoms. This latter concept was widely accepted, to the point where the term conversion became incorporated into the nomenclature of the neuroses and the terms conversion symptoms and conversion reaction came to be equated with the disease hysteria. In the present authors' opinion, the term conversion, if it is used at all, should refer only to certain unexplained symptoms, such as amnesia, paralysis, blindness, and aphonia that mimic neurologic disease. We see no merit in the dichotomy, based on unsubstantiated psychodynamic theory, of a conversion type as separate from a dissociative type of hysteria, as claimed by the DSM classification. Nemiah, who is in other respects partial to the psychoanalytic interpretation, agrees. The term hysteria is probably best reserved for a disease that is largely confined to women and is characterized by a distinctive age of onset, natural history, and certain somatic symptoms and signs, which typically include conversion symptoms, dissociative reactions, or states of "multiple personality." We use the term "psychogenic" in this chapter and throughout the book as an etiologic term broadly attached to dramatic neurologic signs and symptoms that are not explicable on the basis of a lesion of the nervous system.
In clinical neurology one encounters two types of psychogenic neurologic signs, both identified as having no possibility of explanation in disease of the nervous system: (1) a chronic illness marked by multiple and often dramatically presented symptoms and somatic abnormalities of "classic hysteria," almost limited to girls and women and (2) an illness predominantly of men but also of women who develop physical symptoms or remain inexplicably disabled for the purpose of obtaining compensation, influencing litigation, avoiding military duty or imprisonment, or for the manipulation of some other interpersonal or societal situation. This latter state is called compensation neurosis, compensation hysteria, or hysteria with sociopathy, in other words, malingering.
Classic Hysteria (Briquet Disease)
This accounts for 1 to 2 percent of admissions to a neurologic service and a greater number of outpatient visits. It usually has its onset in the teens or early twenties, almost exclusively in young women; a very few cases begin before puberty. Once established, the symptoms recur intermittently, although with reduced frequency, throughout the adult years even to an advanced age. No doubt there are cases of lesser severity in which symptoms occur only a few times or perhaps only once, just as there are mild forms of other diseases. The patient may be seen for the first time during middle life or later, and the earlier history may not at first be forthcoming. Careful probing almost invariably reveals that the earliest manifestations of the illness had appeared before the age of about 25 years.
Other important data are also revealed by eliciting a careful past history. During late childhood and adolescence, the normal activities of the patient, including education, had often been interrupted by periods of ill-defined illness. In the past, rheumatic fever, and in the current era, chronic fatigue, Lyme disease, sick building syndrome, or multiple environmental allergy may be carried as explanatory diagnoses from other physicians or the patient's research on the Internet. Later in life, problems in work adjustment and marriage are frequent. Notable in many cases is a high incidence of marital incompatibility, separation, and divorce. The patient's life history is punctuated by symptoms that do not conform to recognizable patterns of medical and surgical disease. For these ailments, many forms of therapy including surgical operations may have been performed.
In the past, rarely had adult life been reached without at least one abdominal operation for vague abdominal pain, persistent nausea and vomiting, or an obscure gynecologic complaint. Often the indications for the surgical procedures were unclear; moreover, the same symptoms or others often recurred to complicate the convalescence. The biographies of these patients are replete with disorders that center about menstrual, sexual, and procreative functions. Menstrual periods may be painfully prostrating, irregular, or excessive. Sexual intercourse may be painful or unpleasant. Pregnancies may be exceedingly difficult; the common vomiting of the first trimester may persist all through the gestational period, with weight loss and prostration; labor may be unusually difficult and prolonged, and all manner of unpredictable complications are said to have occurred during and after parturition.
Hysteria is a polysymptomatic disorder, involving almost every organ system. In a study of 50 unmistakable cases of hysteria (as compared with a control group of 50 healthy women), the most frequent symptoms reported by Purtell and colleagues included headache, blurred vision, lump in the throat, loss of voice, dyspnea, palpitation, anxiety attacks, anorexia, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, unusual food allergies, severe menstrual pain, urinary retention, painful intercourse, paresthesias, dizzy spells, nervousness, and easy crying.
The mental examination of the patient with hysteria demonstrates a lack of precision in relating the details of the illness. Questions regarding the chief complaint usually elicit a narration of a series of incidents or problems, many of which prove to have little or no relevance to the question. Memory defects (amnesic gaps) are apparent while the history is being taken; the patient appears to have forgotten important segments of the history, some of which he had clearly described in the past and are part of the medical record. The description of symptoms is dramatic and not in accord with the facts as elicited from other members of the family. Often, a rather casual demeanor is manifest, the patient insisting that everything in her life is quite normal and controlled, when, in fact, her medical record is checkered with instances of dramatic and unexplained illness. This calm attitude toward a turbulent illness and seemingly disabling physical signs is so common that it has been singled out as an important characteristic of hysteria, la belle indifference. Other patients, however, are obviously tense and anxious and report frank anxiety attacks. Emotional reactions are superficial and scenes that are disturbing to others are quickly forgotten. Claims of early life sexual abuse are common and often prove to be true, or sometimes are not valid; when present, they may play a role in the genesis of some cases (see further on).
There are no pathognomonic findings. Although many in the past have commented on the rather youthful, girlish appearance and coquettish ("seductive") manner of the patients, these by no means characterize most patients in the current era. The abdomen may be diffusely and exceedingly tender but without other signs of abdominal disease. The so-called stigmata of hysteria—i.e., corneal anesthesia; absence of gag reflex; spots of pain and tenderness over the scalp, sternum, breasts, lower ribs, and ovaries—are often suggested by the examiner and are too inconsistent to be of much help in diagnosis. The variation and pleomorphism of the physical signs are limited only by the patient's ability to produce them by voluntary effort. Accordingly, symptoms and signs that are beyond volitional control should not be accepted as manifestations of hysteria. Sometimes the patient's physical signs are an imitation of those of another member of the family ("folie à deux") or are evoked by a stressful event in the patient's personal life. However, this may not be disclosed at the time of the first examination.
Neurologic Syndromes of Psychogenic Origin
A few hysterical syndromes occur with regularity that every physician may expect to encounter them. Most are neurologic in nature. They constitute some of the most puzzling diagnostic problems in medicine.
This may involve any part of the body; generalized or localized headache, "atypical facial pain," vague abdominal pain, and chronic back pain with camptocormia are the most frequent and troublesome. In many of these patients the response to analgesic drugs has been unusual or excessive, and some of them are addicted. The hysterical patient may respond readily to a placebo as though it were a potent drug, but it should be pointed out that this is a notoriously unreliable means of distinguishing hysterical pain from that of other diseases. A greater error is to mistake the pain of osteomyelitis or visceral tumor—before other symptoms have developed—for a manifestation of hysteria. There are several helpful diagnostic features of hysterical pain: (1) the patient's inability to give a clear, concise description of the type of pain; (2) the location of the pain does not conform to the pattern of pain in the familiar medical syndromes; (3) the dramatic elaborations of its intensity (speaking in inflated metaphors—"like a giant knife stabbing") and its effects on the body ("tearing my limb off"); (4) its persistence, either continuous or intermittent, for long periods of time; (5) the assumption of bizarre postures; and, most important, (6) the coexistence of other clinical features or previous attacks of hysterical nature.
This is often combined with pain and tenderness in the lower abdomen and results in unnecessary appendectomies and removal of pelvic organs in adolescent girls and young women. The vomiting often occurs after a meal, leaving the patient hungry and ready to eat again; it may be induced by unpleasant circumstances. Some of these patients can vomit at will, regurgitating food from the stomach like a ruminant animal. Vomiting may persist for weeks with no cause being found. Weight loss may occur, but seldom to the degree anticipated. As remarked earlier, the usual first-trimester vomiting of pregnancy may continue throughout the entire 9 months, and occasionally pregnancy will be interrupted because of it. Anorexia may be a prominent associated symptom and must be differentiated from anorexia nervosa–bulimia, another closely related disease of young women.
Psychogenic Seizures (PNES), Trances, and Fugues (See also Chap. 16)
These conditions seem to be no less frequent than in the days of Charcot, when la grande attaque d'hysterie was often exhibited before medical audiences, but it is quite familiar to all neurologists and one of the main concerns of epileptologists. To witness an attack is of great assistance in diagnosis but electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring is often required for certainty. The lack of an aura, initiating cry, hurtful fall, or incontinence; the presence of peculiar movements such as grimacing, squirming, thrashing and flailing of the limbs, side-to-side motions of the head, and striking at or resisting those who offer assistance; the retention of consciousness during a motor seizure that involves both sides of the body; a long duration of the seizure, its abrupt termination by strong sensory stimulation, lack of postictal confusion, and failure to produce a rise in creatine kinase—are all typical of the psychogenic attack. Sometimes hyperventilation will initiate an attack and is therefore a useful diagnostic maneuver. Both epilepsy, particularly of frontal-lobe type, and hysteria may occur in the same patient, a combination that invariably causes difficulty in diagnosis as discussed in Chap. 16.
Hysterical trances or fugues, in which the patient wanders about for hours or days and carries out complex acts may simulate temporal lobe epilepsy or any of the conditions that lead to confusional psychosis. The most reliable point of differentiation comes from observation of the patient, who, if hysterical, is likely to indicate a degree of alertness and promptness of response not seen in temporal lobe seizures or confusional states. Following the episode, an interview with the patient—under the influence of hypnosis, strong suggestion, or midazolam (formerly used was amobarbital [Amytal])—will often reveal memories of what happened during the episode. This helps to exclude the possibility of an epileptic spell.
Hysterical Paralyses, Gait, Sensory Loss, and Tremors (See also Chaps. 3, 6, 7, and 9)
Hysterical palsies may involve an arm, a leg, one side of the body, or both legs. If the affected limb can be moved at all, muscle action is weak and tremulous. Movements are slow, tentative, and poorly sustained; often it can be demonstrated that the strength of voluntary movement is proportional to the resistance offered by the examiner, thus imparting a "give-way" character, as noted in the discussion of these signs in Chap. 3. One can detect by palpation that agonist and antagonist muscles are contracting simultaneously, thereby holding the limb in place rather than opposing the examiner, and when the resistance is suddenly withdrawn, there is no follow-through or rebound, as is normally the case. Many other signs have been devised to demonstrate inconsistencies with normal physiologic principles and a purposive lack of cooperation. These are elaborated upon in the articles by Stone and associates (2002b and 2013). The discrepancies are usually found by testing an agonist, antagonist, or fixator movement while the patient is focused on making an effort with another group of muscles (e.g., the Hoover sign; see Chap 3). Muscular tone in the affected limbs is usually normal but slight resistance may sometimes be found. A seeming lack of effort and the absence of full compliance with the examiner's requests during the testing of muscle strength, while common in hysterical patients, are not confined to them; one encounters such findings not infrequently during the examination of suggestible but nonhysterical patients who harbor a neurologic disease and in those with a painful condition in an adjacent joint.
Walking and standing may be impossible (astasia-abasia) or the gait may be bizarre with collapsing legs that bring the patient to a squat, or a "skating" gait in which one foot is pushed ahead of the body. Other forms—some quite absurd, as noted in Chap. 7—are easily recognized as inconsistent with the makings of the nervous system in disease. Weakness and poor balance are combined elements in both the quadriparetic and hemiparetic forms. In Keane's informative series of 60 cases of hysterical gait, the hemiparetic and monocrural forms were twice as frequent as the quadriparetic. The gait disorder is sometimes difficult to describe because of its variability. Sudden falls without voluntary protective movements and inconsistencies of balance are helpful features. Difficulty in walking and moving the legs while seated is, of course, not unique to hysteria; it also occurs in so-called frontal lobe gait apraxia and in ataxia from midline cerebellar lesions and in hydrocephalus.
In a most remarkable and recalcitrant form of psychogenic movement disorder, maintenance of the limbs in a rigid or dystonic posture for a long time may result in a bed-bound, crippled state with severe flexion pseudocontractures of the limbs. We have seen 1 such case of 18 years' duration. The tendon reflexes are usually normal if they can be tested, but with hysterical rigidity and muscular contractures, the abdominal and plantar reflexes may be suppressed.
Anesthesia or hypesthesia is almost always inadvertently suggested by the physician's examination. Seldom is sensory loss a spontaneous complaint, although "numbness" and paresthesias are not uncommon in hysterics. The sensory loss may involve one or more limbs below a sharp line (stocking and glove distribution), or may involve precisely one half of the body, or vibratory sense may be lost over precisely one-half of the skull (a test favored to demonstrate hysterical hemianesthesia). Touch, pain, taste, smell, vision, and hearing may all be affected on that side, which is an anatomic impossibility from a single lesion. Other aspects of psychogenic sensory disturbance are discussed in Chap. 9. The closest syndrome is that produced by a thalamic infarction but this, too, is easily distinguishable from psychogenic hemianesthesia.
The sometimes-stated notion that hysterical paralysis and sensory deficits are more common on the left side is untrue, according to Stone and colleagues (2002a).
The features of hysterical tremor and other movement disorders are described in Chap. 6. Emphasized here are the cessation of tremor with distracting tasks—e.g., complex finger movement patterns on the side opposite the tremor (such as touching the fourth, second, and fifth fingers in sequence rapidly), or refixation of the eyes on a target, or walking on the outside of the heels. The ability of the examiner to "chase" the tremor to proximal or distal parts of the limb by holding and immobilizing one part is highly characteristic. A fairly dependable sign is worsening of a tremor with loading that is accomplished by placing a heavy object in the patient's hand (most basal ganglionic and cerebellar tremors are muted by this maneuver).
Some general characteristics of psychogenic movement disorders that ring true to our experiences with patients are summarized in a review by Hinson and Haren; they include a typically acute onset and rapid progression of the movements, distractibility, variability and the simultaneous occurrence of various abnormal movements and of unexplainable paralysis, sensory loss, or pain. Needless to say the movements are not explainable by conventional characteristics of organic brain diseases, but as with all forms of hysteria, it is not on this feature alone that the diagnosis can rest. They point out, paradoxically, that an associated depressive or anxiety disorder is a good prognostic aspect.
Hysterical Blindness (See also Chap. 13)
This dramatic event may affect one or both eyes and may be coupled with hemiparesis or appear in isolation. The symptoms usually develop suddenly, often after an altercation or other emotionally charged event. The patient stares straight ahead blandly when undisturbed, but may squint or move the head as if straining to see when asked to view an object. Some such individuals can reduce reflexive blinking in response to a visual threat. The psychic nature of the problem may be recognized by a nurse who observes the patient reaching for a cup or for the phone. The preservation of vision is confirmed by the presence of normal pupillary reflexes and of optokinetic nystagmus, although one occasionally encounters a patient who has learned to suppress the latter response as well. A mirror passed slowly in the patient's central vision often engages eye movements. Other similar maneuvers are favored by different examiners. The presence of visual evoked responses also confirms the intactness of retinooccipital connections. The patient expresses little concern about the condition, which is usually short-lived. Cortical blindness and variants of the Balint syndrome are the main diagnostic considerations (see Chap. 22).
Convergence spasm, occurring as an isolated phenomenon, is practically always of hysterical nature.
A related phenomenon involves the self-administration of mydriatic eyedrops by healthcare personnel. The patient arrives on the emergency ward complaining of reduced vision (expected) or with headache and claiming to have an intracranial mass. This behavior is perhaps more sociopathic (or malingering) than hysterical.
Patients brought to a hospital in a state of amnesia, not knowing their own identity, are usually hysterical females or sociopathic males involved in a crime. Usually, after a few hours or days, with encouragement, they divulge their life history. Epileptic patients or victims of a concussion, transient global amnesia, or acute confusional psychosis do not come to a hospital asking for help in establishing their identity. Moreover, the complete loss of memory for all previous life experiences by patients who are otherwise able to comport themselves normally is not observed in any other condition.
In the Ganser syndrome (amnesia, disturbance of consciousness, and hallucinations) patients pretend to have lost their memory or to have become insane. They may act in an absurd manner, simulating the way they believe that an insane or demented person would act, and give senseless or only approximate answers to every question asked of them (calling the color red blue or answering 5 for 2 + 2).
(See also further on under Sociopathy)
As stated earlier, symptoms of the same nature as those in hysteria occur in men, most often in those trying to avoid legal difficulties or military service or attempting to obtain disability or compensation following injury. Sociopaths often present with this type of illness. Unless such a motivating factor can be identified, the diagnosis of hysteria in the male should be made with caution. In compensation neurosis, as in the classic form of hysteria, multiple symptoms are reported; many of the symptoms are the same as those listed under female hysteria. Or the patient may be monosymptomatic (e.g., "seizures") and the symptoms, particularly chronic pain, may be confined to the neck, head, arm, or low back. The description of symptoms tends to be lengthy and circumstantial, and the patient fails to give details that are necessary for diagnosis. A tangible gain from the illness may be discovered by simple questioning. This is usually in the form of monetary compensation, which, surprisingly, is sometimes less than that which the patient could earn if he returned to work. Most such patients are actively engaged in litigation when first seen. Another interesting feature is the frequency with which the patient expresses extreme dissatisfaction with the medical care given him; he is often hostile toward the physicians and nurses. Many of these patients have already been subjected to an excessive number of hospitalizations and rather dramatic mishaps have allegedly occurred in carrying out diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. The majority of these patients were previously suspected of malingering.
Women who suffer injury at work or are involved in auto accidents may exhibit the same symptoms and signs of compensation neurosis as men, but in our experience, do so infrequently or at least less overtly.
Etiology and Pathogenesis
Psychoanalytic theory, which held that both conversion and dissociative symptoms are based on particular psychodynamic mechanisms, is impossible to affirm or refute. Although subject to some question of fabricated recall, we have been impressed at the high rate of childhood sexual abuse reported by women with severe monosymptomatic cases of hysteria or fugue states. This conforms to some extent with psychoanalytic views. An acknowledged history of childhood abuse related by the patient alerts the physician to the possibility of hysteria. Sociologic and educational factors may be important, for it has been observed that hysterical women as a group tend to be less intelligent and less educated than nonhysterical women but there are many exceptions. A genetic causation must also be considered since family studies have disclosed that approximately 20 percent of first-degree relatives of female hysterics have the same illness, an incidence 10 times that in the general population. This supports, in some views, the idea that hysteria is a disease and not merely a surfacing of a basic personality disorder (see Goodwin and Guze).
Whether conversion symptoms are consciously produced by the patient or arise unconsciously, without the patient's awareness, is a question that has been debated endlessly without resolution. Babinski attributed the symptoms to hypersuggestibility. In fact, he defined hysteria as an illness whose symptoms could be induced (and removed) by suggestion. There is strong evidence to support this idea, as most patients can be readily hypnotized and their symptoms temporarily eliminated by this procedure or by an interview and examination under the influence of midazolam. The present authors place great credence on this notion of hypersuggestibility, in keeping with older studies that emphasized these patients' unusual susceptibility to hypnosis and suggestion. Fascinating in this regard were the observations of Charcot's students that on their wards, the patients' symptoms disappeared in his absence.
Some insights can be obtained from studies of functional imaging in hysterical paralysis (see also Chap. 3). In general, the contralateral prefrontal cortex is suppressed when the patient with hysteria attempts to move a limb, suggesting to Spence and colleagues a "choice" of an active attempt not to move the limb. The pattern of activation was quite different from volunteers who purposefully feigned paralysis and who did not demonstrate such reduced prefrontal activity. When the hysteric with unilateral sensory loss is stimulated on the affected limb, there is no activation of the contralateral sensory cortex but bilateral stimulation results in activation of the appropriate regions in both hemispheres (Ghaffar et al). Some of the recent findings using functional imaging in hysterical states are reviewed by Carson and colleagues.
As pointed out by Carothers and by Guze and colleagues, hysteria and sociopathy may be closely related. Hysteria is a disease of women and sociopathy mainly of men. As restated by Cloninger and colleagues (1975), they may constitute expressions of a single underlying variable. This relationship is also supported by family studies. First-degree male relatives of hysterical women have an increased incidence of sociopathy and alcoholism; among first-degree female relatives of convicted male felons, there is an increased prevalence of hysteria. Moreover, careful histories of sociopathic girls reveal that many of them develop the full syndrome of hysteria. Women felons often present a mixed picture of hysteria and sociopathy, according to Cloninger and Guze.
The characteristic age of onset; the longitudinal history of recurrent multiple complaints as outlined earlier; the attitude of the patient and the manner of presenting her symptoms; the incongruity of affect and clinical state; the discrepancy between the neurologic deficit and the signs on examination; the impossibility of explaining the patient's signs on an anatomic or physiologic basis; and the absence of symptoms and signs of other medical and surgical disease will permit an accurate diagnosis in the majority of cases. Certain tests designed to reveal normal functioning of a limb, of vision, and of gait already have been mentioned.
There is a significant overlap of hysteria and other medical and neurologic diseases. On record are numerous studies in which patients with an initial diagnosis of hysteria by general physicians were followed for many years. Up to one-third of them (far less in most series) turned out eventually to have an "organic condition" that, in retrospect, explained the initial symptoms (Couprie et al). This emphasizes that the original clinical diagnosis of hysteria is sometimes erroneous, although numerous other surveys emphasize the opposite, as noted below. When the diagnostic criteria in these cases are closely analyzed, it becomes apparent that the diagnosis was made solely by the "discrepancy method"—i.e., the patient's symptoms or signs were not deemed to be credible manifestations of disease, based mainly on the clinical experience of the examiner. Of course, this assumes that the examiner has a wide experience; unfortunately for the novice, many syndromes are unknown or incomprehensible.
However, when diagnosis is based on the totality of the clinical picture and not on the "discrepancy method," it can be quite accurate. The physician can be further reassured that in followup studies of patients with so-called conversion disorder (exclusive of pseudoseizures), virtually none develops a neurologic lesion that in retrospect was related to the initial episode as, for example, in the study by Stone and colleagues (2003). It is of interest that in the series cited, most patients had persistent functional disability from their conversion symptoms, even a decade later.
So-called projective tests (the Rorschach and Thematic Apperception Tests), which for a time were popular with dynamic psychiatrists, are not helpful in diagnosis and are now used very little. The presence of extreme suggestibility and the tendency to dramatize symptoms as measured by one part of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and other psychometric tests is helpful in diagnosis but not pathognomonic; these traits appear under certain conditions in individuals who never develop hysteria.
Finally, it should be emphasized that single bouts of isolated hysterical paresis, blindness, and anesthesia are quite common in neurologic practice and do not presage a chronic hysterical illness. The same is true for transient neurologic signs exhibited during the course of the examination, mainly pertaining to unusual or drifting sensory loss or asthenic weakness of a limb.
Treatment of Hysteria and Hysterical Symptoms
Here, opinions differ. Treatment may be considered from two aspects: the amelioration of the long-standing basic personality defect and relieving the recently acquired physical symptoms. Little or nothing can be done about the former. Psychotherapists have attempted to modify it by long-term reeducation, but their results are uninterpretable and there are no control studies for the few reports of therapeutic success. Many psychiatrists are inclined to regard the female with hysteria who has a lifelong history of ill health as having a severe personality disorder—i.e., sociopathy. In other less severe cases and especially in those in whom hysterical symptoms have appeared under the pressure of a major crisis, explanatory and supportive psychotherapy appears to be helpful, and the patients have been able thereafter to resume their places in society.
The acute symptoms can usually be mitigated by persuasion and demonstration. One tactic is to treat the patient as though she has had an illness and is now in the process of recovering. The earlier this is done after the development of symptoms, the more likely they are to be relieved. Sometimes a single symptom such as hemiparesis or tremor can be halted by a particular maneuver and this demonstration suffices to begin recovery. In chronically bedridden patients, strong pressure to get out of bed and resume function must be applied. Stone and Edwards, who have thought considerably about this subject, have suggested showing the patient objective evidence of the functional nature of weakness, such as Hoover sign, by way of demonstrating the correctness of the diagnosis and demonstrating its potential reversibility.
Several approaches to discussing the symptomatology with the patient have been suggested. At one extreme is a confrontative approach in which the patient is told the symptoms are psychologic, or "in your head." We have found this to be counterproductive and almost always provokes an angry response that does not aid clinical improvement. At the other extreme is complete avoidance on the part of the physician, an approach that is almost as unproductive. We prefer to ask the patient if the symptoms can in some way be the result of "stress" or an upsetting recent experience. On occasion, in private, we will inquire about childhood sexual abuse and often get an affirmative response from the patient, with later confirmation by a spouse or sibling. Very powerful is nonjudgmental but firm reassurance that there is no serious disease. We have found it useful to list the diseases that have been excluded by examination and testing: brain tumor, stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, etc. This often evokes an acknowledgment by the patient that one of the diseases had been a preoccupying concern. We then indicate, without using psychologic terms, that the brain may at times adopt certain patterns of behavior that do not reflect structural damage, and, furthermore, that these patterns can be unlearned with physical therapy and time, as described below.
That the patient's response to these conversations varies widely is not surprising. One group seems not to mind and to be relieved by the expression of concern and reassurance that there is no dangerous disease at the root of the problem. They can be sent to a physical therapist and may do well in the short run. Another group is indignant and unlikely to consult the physician again; several in the past have refused to pay the doctor's bill. Some have objected to the explanation based on their own view, often derived from research on the Internet and with similarly afflicted persons, that Lyme disease, chronic viral infection, environmental toxins, allergies, etc., are to blame. A few of these cases have the flavor of a delusion. All that the physician can offer here is an openness to see and reexamine the patient in several months; "cure" has no meaning in these instances and there is a high likelihood that such individuals will see a long line of doctors.
Some of our better results have been obtained by indicating that the neurologic symptoms are a "pattern of brain circuits" or "constitutional" weakness that can be overcome by physical and other therapies. Once the current neurologic disorder has disappeared, it may be helpful to counsel the patient in ways to prevent its recurrence. Family members can be given the same explanation. A regimen of physical therapy should be instituted, using an experienced therapist and setting simple goals for success. Every subsequent illness in such patients should be evaluated objectively, so as not to overlook any medical or surgical disease, which may strike a hysterical patient just as it does any other person.
The success of this program over a long period is unknown. The eradication of recently acquired hysterical symptom is relatively easy. The real test is whether it enables the patient to adjust satisfactorily to family and society and to perform daily activities effectively, and whether it prevents addiction, unnecessary medical treatments, and operations. Estimates of the recurrence rate of hysterical symptoms vary widely from 12 to 80 percent. In the series reported by Gatfield and Guze and by Merskey, the recurrence of somatic symptoms of similar or of other types was as high as in sociopathies. We have seen a few patients with monosymptomatic hysteria (paraparesis, bizarre gait, crippling dystonia) that persisted for years on end regardless of treatment. The long-term poor prognosis for well-established symptoms in several series was alluded to earlier. The use of a wheelchair for more than several days has been a bad prognostic sign in these cases.
This is the preoccupation with bodily functions or physical signs and sensations, leading to the fear or belief of having serious disease. Hallmarks of this condition are the failure of repeated examinations to disclose any physical basis for the patient's symptoms and the failure of reassurance to affect either the patient's symptoms or his conviction of being sick. It is estimated that 85 percent of hypochondriasis is secondary to other mental disorders, chiefly depression, but also schizophrenia and anxiety neuroses. In approximately 15 percent of cases, however, there appears to be no associated illness (primary hypochondriasis). Most patients in this latter category are habitués of medical outpatient clinics, who are passed from specialist to specialist, perplexing and angering doctors along the way, because their symptoms defy both satisfactory diagnosis and cure.
Related to hypochondriasis, but probably more delusional are young adults who present with a fixed somatic belief regarding a peculiar symptom such as that the tongue is swollen, the jaw is not properly aligned, or the penis is ulcerated, when in fact no such abnormalities are present. The troubling aspect to the family and physician of such an illness is the persistence of the symptom and disability that extends for years, all tests having been negative. Probably these patients should be treated like schizophrenics, which many of them probably are. What to do with patients who are less severely affected but who have an unshakable belief that they have Lyme disease or environmental "allergies" depends on the context, but the likelihood of dissuasion is almost as poor as for the worst hypochondriac patients.
The treatment of primary hypochondriasis is difficult unless the physician keeps in mind the personality of the patient and the therapeutic goals. A psychodynamic outlook would suggest that these patients need to retain their symptoms, so that the usual concept of "curing" is inapplicable. The presence of symptoms provides the context for a relationship with a physician and it is the continuation of this relationship, which is often the only dependable contact in the patient's life, that is the motivation for some hypochondriac patients. Such patients are best managed by general physicians who realize that these are patients who do not necessarily want or expect a cure, and who are content with small gains and the avoidance of unnecessary surgery.