Munchausen Syndrome

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

What is Munchausen syndrome?

Munchausen syndrome, referred to as factitious disorder, is a mental condition in which sufferers cause or pretend to have physical or psychological symptoms in themselves. It is thought to be motivated only by a desire to assume the role of a sick person rather than by financial gain, improving his or her physical condition, avoiding responsibility, drug seeking, or some other benefit, as occurs in malingering. Research study results differ in terms of identifying groups that are most at risk for developing the disorder. Some statistics describe women with health training may be more susceptible to developing Munchausen syndrome, especially the physical symptoms thereof. However, other studies indicate that men and women develop Munchausen syndrome with equal frequency. Still other research describes unmarried middle-aged men who are estranged from their families as being the most at risk for developing this condition. While the condition may occur at any age, it seems to most often develop in late adolescence or early adulthood and is either preceded by or coexists with Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Estimates of how often Munchausen syndrome occurs are a small percentage of the population of the United States, but it can be significantly higher in some subpopulations. For example, some people with fever of unknown origin have Munchausen syndrome. Some people who were previously diagnosed as having psychosis were found to have this disorder as well.

Even before having its current name, this condition has been described since at least biblical times. For example, sufferers of this syndrome during the Middle Ages went as far as scraping off their skin and putting leeches in their mouths to induce bleeding. This illness was named for Baron Karl Friedrich von Munchausen. He lived from 1720 to 1797, was born in Germany, joined the Russian military, and was known to tell fantastic stories about the battles he participated in. For example, he reportedly claimed to ride cannonballs and travel to the moon.

In contrast to Munchausen syndrome, Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) is a fabrication of sickness by a third person, usually a caretaker, which allows the third person to assume the sick role. The caretaker involved in the development of MSBP is usually the victim's mother. This illness involves psychological abuse and may also include physical abuse and medical neglect if symptoms are induced rather than just made up. Although both Munchausen syndrome and somatoform disorders can be characterized by physical complaints, Munchausen syndrome is different in that the complaints are consciously invented or caused by the sufferer him- or herself. For example, individuals with somatization disorder, conversion disorder, and people who are hypochondriacs are convinced that they really suffer from physical symptoms, have a deficit in movement or sensory function, or believe they are seriously ill, respectively.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/14/2015

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