A most interesting study appeared in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association.
Researchers found that six sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy can help hypochondriacs deal with their fears, but the treatment has its limits: a quarter of the patients quit after being told the problem was in their heads.
“Most hypochondriac people never will go to a psychiatrist,” said study co-author Arthur Barsky of Harvard Medical School.
“They’ll say, ‘I don’t need to talk about this, I need someone to stick a biopsy needle in my liver, I need that CAT scan repeated.’”
The study involved 102 patients asssigned to receive psychotherapy and 85 who got routine medical care.
Among those who completed the six therapy sessions, almost 57% showed significant improvement after a year, compared with 32% of the control group.
About 5% of patients who seek help from doctors have hypochondria, defined as persistent, unfounded fears about having a serious disease.
Hypochondria is notoriously hard to treat, in part because patients often switch doctors until they get tests or a diagnosis they can accept.
Scientists are uncertain about what causes hypochondria. Some think it’s genetic, while others suggest it is learned from parents who overreact to illness.