Episode 19: Somatic Symptoms in Kids
With the start of the school year, those of us working in medical settings start to notice a trend: more kids coming in with physical symptoms. And why is this the case? There are a lot of things that change with the start of the school year, including kids being closer together and colds/flus spreading. But there's another thing that tends to increase: somatic symptoms.
For those who are unfamiliar with somatic symptoms, they are basically physical symptoms that cause distress and do not have any clear medical cause. Now, to be very clear, that does not mean that the symptoms are fake or "all in the head." The experience of somatic symptoms is very real, but the way they are addressed is different. That's because when somatic symptoms are present, the child is physically healthy, so there is less need for medical attention. (But an important point: I am not suggesting you ignore a child's report of physical symptoms. Somatic symptoms cannot be identified until a medical cause has been ruled out). Instead, addressing somatic symptoms requires addressing psychosocial factors that may be contributing to the symptoms. For example, a child experiencing pain may benefit from distractions and relaxation techniques.
Somatic symptoms can include (but are not limited to):
- Pain (e.g., migraines, stomach aches)
- Non-epileptic seizures/motor tics
If you think your child may be having somatic symptoms, consider having them seen by their PCP to determine if there is anything medical happening. If medical causes are ruled out, or the symptoms are deemed more intense than they should be given the medical cause, then the symptoms may be at least partially somatic. Should that be the case, consider what stressors may be contributing to the symptoms. You don't want to shelter your child from those stressors, but you can focus on helping them to cope. In addition, you can stay in communication with the medical provider to determine when it's appropriate to bring your child in for a medical visit, versus trying to distract them from the symptoms. If symptoms really are somatic in nature, bringing your child to the doctor repeatedly can reinforce the symptoms (e.g., gives the impression it's medical, increases stress due to missing school and going through medical tests, causes the child to focus more on the symptoms).
But overall, when in doubt, consult with your child's PCP, and consider meeting with an outpatient psychotherapist for guidance if there's reason to believe there are somatic symptoms present.