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Munchausen syndrome is a form of factitious disorder, a psychological condition in which a patient fakes a physical illness by inducing or exaggerating symptoms. In many instances, a patient with factitious disorder may fake an illness for some external purpose, such as obtaining drugs or disability payments. Unlike these cases, individuals with Munchausen syndrome wish to obtain sympathy and attention through their illness.
Named after Baron von Munchausen, a German officer famous for telling outrageous stories, Munchausen syndrome is believed to be the most serious of factitious disorders. In order to receive comfort and attention from medical personnel, sufferers induce physical symptoms, alter medical tests, or fake symptoms of an illness. In many cases, patients rack up exorbitant medical expenses in the process.
Due to the deceptive nature of the disease, Munchausen syndrome is difficult to detect. However, there are several factors which may indicate that a patient is faking his or her illness. For example, an inconsistent medical history or recurring unresponsiveness to treatment are indicative of Munchausen syndrome. Patients may also frequently develop new and inconsistent symptoms or seem unusually eager to submit to medical tests.
The direct causes of Munchausen syndrome are unclear and vary from case to case. However, histories of physical and emotion abuse are not uncommon in sufferers. Furthermore, there is a high rate of comorbidity with other psychological disorders, primarily depressive disorder and certain personality disorders. Many individuals suffering from Munchausen syndrome have problems with identity, impulse control, and fear of abandonment.
Because of the dishonesty involved in Munchausen syndrome, diagnosis is frequently very difficult. It can take medical personnel years to realize that a patient is faking his or her illness. Patients may frequently change hospitals or seek care under a false name in order to escape detection. Even after medical staff determine that a patient is suffering from Munchausen syndrome, attempts to confront the patient may be met with hostility.
Although patients seek care for their physical symptoms, treatment for Munchausen syndrome is primarily psychiatric. It is important that a psychiatrist treat the problem as a disorder rather than deliberate deception in order to avoid placing blame on the sufferer. Recovery from Munchausen syndrome is a long and difficult process. As with most psychological disorders, the outlook for recovery is best when the patient is able to admit the problem and seek treatment on his or her own.