Medical Definition of Munchhausen syndrome

  • Medical Author:
    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.

Munchhausen syndrome: (This is an alternate entry to Münchausen syndrome. Münchausen has an umlaut over the u but it is sometimes written as "Münchausen" without the umlaut in English.) A recurrent feigning of catastrophic illnesses, a psychological disorder that is characterized by the recurrent presentation of the patient for treatment of an acute and often dire illness that is, in reality, not present.

The person with Münchhausen syndrome usually gives a plausible and dramatic history. All of it is entirely false. The patient tends to go from hospital to hospital feigning medical or surgical diseases and giving false and fanciful information about their medical and social background. They may even have unnecessary surgery repeatedly, resulting for example in a "mass of scars" on the abdomen, what has been called a "gridiron abdomen." Some patients with Münchhausen syndrome cause their own illness, as by secretly ingesting or injecting substances.

The syndrome was named by an astute English physician Richard Asher in 1951 after the German cavalry officer Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Münchausen (1720-97), a teller of tall tales.

Although Asher named the syndrome, he did not discover it. In 1893 Henry Miege, a student of the famed French neurologist Jean Charcot, wrote his thesis on patients with the syndrome and Charcot (1825-1893) referred to it in his own writing. Forty years later, the Kansas psychiatrist Karl Menninger (1893-1990) discussed the subject in a paper entitled "Polysurgery and Polysurgical Addiction."

However, it was Asher's article that crystallized the syndrome and brought it to general medical attention. The first sentence in Asher's article stated, "Here is described a common syndrome which most doctors have seen, but about which little has been written." This prompted a flurry of responses in which doctors testified that they, too, had had patients with this mysterious malady.

Reviewed on 9/7/2018

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