Munchausen’s Syndrome

A condition in which medical care is sought repeatedly for nonexistent or self-induced symptoms

  • Usually begins in early adulthood
  • More common in males
  • Working in a health-related profession is a risk factor
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

Munchausen’s syndrome is a rare condition in which a person claims to have symptoms of illness, such as abdominal pain, blackouts, or fever, and may repeatedly seek treatment from a number of hospitals. This unexplained desire to assume the role of a patient is seen as an attempt to escape from everyday life and be cared for and protected.

The syndrome usually develops in early adulthood and is more common in men. Those affected tend to have some knowledge of symptoms and hospital procedures, which may have been acquired through working in a health-related profession. For this reason, their bogus claims to illness may be taken seriously until test results prove negative or exploratory surgery is carried out. People with the disorder tend to conceal personal details or give extraordinary accounts of their circumstances. If challenged, they may accuse doctors of incompetence and leave the hospital.

In factitious disorder, a variant of Munchausen’s syndrome, a person aggravates an existing condition or causes deliberate self-injury. The disorder occurs most often in health professionals. In another related condition, Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, a parent, often the mother, repeatedly claims her child is ill and in need of treatment.

What are the symptoms?

Munchausen’s syndrome and factitious disorder have similar typical patterns of behaviour, which may include:

  • Dramatic presentation of symptoms and their history.

  • Histrionic and argumentative behaviour towards medical staff.

  • Wide knowledge of medical terms and medical procedures.

There may be evidence of multiple surgical operations, such as a number of scars on the abdomen. An affected person may demand strong painkillers, possibly because he or she has an addiction. In Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, the parent may fake physical signs of illness in a child and give a false description of symptoms. The child may be repeatedly admitted to hospital for unnecessary tests or treatment.

What might be done?

Treatment is difficult because as soon as staff begin to suspect that a person is feigning symptoms, he or she may leave the hospital to avoid being discovered.Munchausen’s syndrome may be identified only with hindsight.

It is often difficult to treat Munchausen’s syndrome and related conditions because deception is a characteristic of the disorders. The doctor may try to prevent further unnecessary treatments and tests by building a calm and supportive relationship with the person. In cases of Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, a social worker should be alerted in case a child needs to be placed in care.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

Back to top