The importance of contextual aspects in the care for patients with functional somatic symptoms

J M Gol*, J G M Rosmalen, R O B Gans, R C Oude Voshaar

*Corresponding author for this work

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Functional somatic symptoms refer to physical symptoms that cannot be (bio) medically explained. The pattern or clustering of such symptoms may lead to functional syndromes like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, among many others. Since the underlying pathophysiology remains unknown, several explanatory models have been proposed, nearly all including social and psychological parameters. These models have stimulated effectiveness studies of several psychological and psychopharmacological therapies. While the evidence for their effectiveness is steadily growing, effect-sizes are at most moderate and many patients do not benefit. We hypothesize that the context in which interventions for functional somatic symptoms are delivered substantially influences their effectiveness. Although this hypothesis is in line with explanatory models of functional somatic symptoms, to our knowledge, studies primarily focusing on the influence of contextual aspects on treatment outcome are scarce. Contextual research in the field of somatic symptoms has (irrespective whether these symptoms can be medically explained or not), however, just begun and already yielded some valuable results. These findings can be organized according to Duranti's and Goodwin's theoretical approach to context in order to substantiate our hypothesis. Based on this approach, we categorized empirical findings in three contextual aspects, i.e. 1) the setting, 2) the behavioural environment, and 3) the language environment. Collectively, some support is found for the fact that early identification of patients with functional somatic symptoms, starting treatment as soon as possible, having a neat appearance and an organized office interior, a warm and friendly nonverbal approach and a language use without defensiveness are contextual parameters which enhance the assessment by the patient of the physician's competence to help. Nonetheless, in vivo studies addressing the most aspects, i.e. nonverbal behaviour and language, are needed for better understanding of these contextual aspect. Moreover, future research should address to what extent optimizing contextual aspects improve care for functional somatic symptoms.

Original languageEnglish
Article number109731
Number of pages5
JournalMedical Hypotheses
Early online date11-Apr-2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept-2020

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