Am I unlucky or just crazy?
September 30, 2016 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I've just been diagnosed with what was explained to me as a psychosomatic condition with nothing physiologically wrong. I would be relieved if this wasn't the last of several times I've had worrying, bothersome symptoms, had all tests come back clear and had the symptoms clear up right after being given a clean bill of health. Why does this keep happening to me? Do I need serious psychiatric help?

When I was a teenager, I had an issue where I always felt like I had to pee. After a miserable year and a slew of embarrassing and invasive tests that all came back normal, it went away. Now in my mid-twenties, I've been through the same story numerous times with other symptoms, including tingling in my limbs, hot flashes, and heart palpitations. Every time I've been seriously bothered by the symptoms and concerned about having a serious illness, and every time they've persisted while I've waited for specialist appointments and tests, only to disappear shortly after the doctor concludes there's nothing wrong. I've seen a shitload of doctors and specialists -- way too many for a young woman who by all accounts has no actual health problems.

My latest diagnosis is functional heartburn, which my gastroenterologist explained as heartburn without any signs of actual acid reflux or stomach problems, and said it's basically considered psychosomatic. Unsurprisingly, the chronic heartburn I've experienced for the past half year -- while I worried myself sick about getting esophageal cancer -- seems to be on it's way out.

At this point I'm starting to worry that I'm seriously nuts. I do have an anxiety problem, but it's been fairly well managed by an SSRI for the past couple years. I absolutely do not enjoy the attention or going to doctors, and these have all been symptoms that I've actually felt and have been actually bothered by. Is this all just terrible luck or do I need to see a psychiatrist? Is there anything that can actually be done for someone who keeps getting psychosomatic illnesses?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever seen a neurologist? Have you ever had an MRI of your brain, neck, and spine? Neurological conditions are insidious and can cause a whole host of problems that make you feel like shit with no "physical" cause.

Your problems may well be psychosomatic and something you'd be better served seeing a psychiatrist for, I do not know, but I can tell you that if doctors have jumped to that assumption without ever referring you to a neurologist for a full workup, that's a road you should definitely investigate as your next line of inquiry.

I have tingling in my limbs, swallowing problems, and feel like I always have to pee (among a host of other symptoms) and those things all trace back to a neurological source.

Protip: If you are a woman, find a female neuro. Male doctors are often extremely dismissive of women's pain.
posted by phunniemee at 7:43 AM on September 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

I don't see how we're going to be able to tease out an answer to the question of whether there is a causal or merely a coincidental relationship going on here, but it's clearly bothering you and worsening your anxiety. Given that, and especially given that the situation at least might have something to do with a pattern of psychosomatic illness, a psychiatrist or similar seems like the right person to talk to. If you want to get to the bottom of this, I think a mental health professional of some kind would be a great place to start.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:46 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have this problem! Until a few years ago, I was getting....oh, all kinds of frankly wasteful testing for stupid things that went away. Also, I totally recognize the heart palpitations and weird paresthesias. And the heartburn!

What has worked for me:

1. Talk therapy, which helped me to address the other issues in my life which were coming out in physical symptoms. I have far fewer psychosomatic symptoms now.

2. Making some life changes - doing some things I'd wanted to do but had put off, etc.

3. Reading up on and talking with doctors about non-terrifying reasons for medical problems. At this point, when I get random stupid symptoms, I am usually able to say "this is probably psychosomatic, but even if it's not, it's probably something minor and I can wait to see if it gets worse before going to the doctor".

I'm curious, because your situation is so like mine - what was your childhood like? I tend to think that my somatized symptoms come from [whatever genetic quirk plus] having a childhood where I had almost no control over the bad things that happened to me and had them repeatedly minimized/denied, also a childhood where I buried my feelings a lot just to get through the day. Only in later life have I realized how much my anxiety is really a proxy for anger and for the fear that, just like in childhood, I will have to put up with shitty treatment forever and no one will ever believe me or think it matters.

Once I started addressing that, it became easier to identify and manage the psychosomatic stuff.

It sounds like you're like me - you genuinely experience these symptoms, they are impossible to distinguish from "real" symptoms and you genuinely don't like the testing, etc.
posted by Frowner at 7:49 AM on September 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

And the part I really recognize - as soon as the doctor says "you're fine", it goes away.

For me, I really think this had a lot to do with unspoken anger and an unlived life - it's not like I'm totally cool with death now, but that cycle of "I have a symptom, it must be the first stage of a terrible, fatal illness, whew the doctor says I'm fine, now the symptom is done" seemed for me to be very much about fearing that I'd die with all this unspoken anger and sadness, and fearing that I'd never, ever get to do what I wanted or be who I wanted.

There are plenty of physical illnesses that are hard to diagnose and women get ignored by doctors all the time - but if you're having symptoms that show up, haunt you and then vanish, it seems like something more.

It sounds extremely, extremely cheesy to put it this way, but: for me, I spent my entire life being pressured to be very nice and go along and shut up and deny that things hurt me, and to give up some very important stuff in order not to take risks or rock the boat, and I learned how to do that really well - but my body still spoke.
posted by Frowner at 7:54 AM on September 30, 2016 [20 favorites]

If it makes you feel any better, feeling like you need to pee all the time is, according to a Uro-gyno I know, very common. There's also a thing called latchkey incontinence because deciding "I need to pee" is apparently a common response to stress.

You might have something physical causing these symptoms, but all the ones you mention sound like either stress responses or things I could feel right now, if I tried

Let's hope it's all in your head - easiest to fix. Plenty of people have been through this.

Start therapy and follow-up JIC you do have something else going on.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:18 AM on September 30, 2016

Let me list your symptoms and check off what I have, too:

I always felt like I had to pee. Check
tingling in my limbs. Check
hot flashes. Check (and I'm male!)
heart palpitations. Check
functional heartburn. Check
anxiety problem. Probably, but I deny that I do.

See a neurologist. Yes, it's "in your head", but not like a "you are crazy" in your head. It's "in your head" in that your brain doesn't know what to do sometimes.

(I was diagnosed with POTS, Fibromyalgia, and Central Sensitization)
posted by TinWhistle at 10:41 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

We can't tell you. These all could have had causes that coincidentally qent away around the same time that you were told it is all in your head. It is even possible that you were doing something that caused symptoms and then stopped doing it because you were told you were fine.

You might try starting a detailed journal.

Or you might chalk it up to "There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy." Not having an answer doesn't prove you are crazy.

I eventually got answers, after being treated like a hypochondriac for years. I have a high tolerance for ambiguity and just spent a lot of years being aggravated with doctors and their assumption that they know everything, so if they aren't finding The Answer, I must be nuts. From what I have read, this is an all too common pattern.
posted by Michele in California at 11:58 AM on September 30, 2016

I really wanted to quickly come back to this question and give you an answer from a doctor's perspective.

I know it probably seems from your vantage point that you might be crazy, as you say - but really, I think a lot of people - maybe even the majority of people - suffer from symptoms like these at some point in their lives. I know I have. Our mental health is really so tied in with our physical health. I see evidence of that daily... the longer I work in the medical field, the more I see of this principle.

So, to follow from that, a few pieces of advice:
- you're not crazy. You're normal. Maybe not everyone would have pursued the extensive workups you did, but a lot of people, most people, have had problems like these.
- "Serious psychiatric help" is coming off like something horribly negative and stigmatizing the way you're phrased things here. No, you ought to work on changing your perspective. Your symptoms may be coming from non-mental health related problems, although there's no evidence of that right now, you don't have to feel bad about seeking medical help for the apparent physical symptoms you have experienced. But there's no denying that this has affected you and that you have been under stress, that you have felt a lot of anxiety related to this. Straightforward anxiety and depression CAN also cause many physical symptoms, though. It doesn't mean you need "serious" psychiatric help - having anxiety or depression or any other mental health problem just means you need regular, routine old help just like you've been getting for your physical symptoms.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:09 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

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