Munchausen syndrome is a specific condition in which a person intentionally fakes, simulates, worsens, or self-induces an injury or illness for the main purpose of being treated like a medical patient. Munchausen syndrome was named after a German military man, Baron von Munchausen, who traveled around telling fantastic tales about his imaginary exploits. In 1951, Richard Asher applied the term to people traveling from hospital to hospital, making up various illnesses.
Munchausen syndrome describes people who have a chronic variant of a factitious disorder with mostly physical signs and symptoms, although there are reports in literature regarding psychological Munchausen syndrome, meaning that the simulated symptoms are psychiatric in nature. People with Munchausen syndrome cause signs and symptoms of an illness or injury on purpose by inflicting medical harm to their body, often to the point of having to be hospitalized. These people are sometimes eager to undergo invasive medical interventions in order to make people believe them. They are also known to move from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, or town to town to find a new group of people once they have exhausted the workup and treatment options available in a given medical setting. People with Munchausen syndrome may also make false claims about their accomplishments, credentials, relations to famous people and make up many more untrue stories.
Factitious disorder symptoms involve mimicking or producing illness or injury or exaggerating symptoms or impairment to trick others to believe them. People with the disorder go to great lengths to hide their deception, so it can be very difficult to realize that their symptoms are actually part of a serious mental health disorder. Most often, they continue with the deception, even without receiving any visible benefit or reward or when faced with objective evidence that doesn't support their claims.
Factitious disorder signs and symptoms may include:
- Clever and convincing medical or psychological problems
- Extensive knowledge of medical terms and diseases
- Conditions that get worse for no apparent reason
- Seeking treatment from many different doctors or hospitals, which may include using a fake name
- Reluctance to allow doctors to talk to family or friends or to other health care professionals
- Frequent stays in the hospital
- Eagerness to have frequent testing or risky operations
- Many surgical scars or evidence of numerous procedures
The exact cause of the disease is not known, but researchers believe both biological and psychological factors play a role in the development of this syndrome. Some theories suggest that a history of abuse or neglect as a child, or a history of frequent illnesses requiring hospitalization, might be some of the factors associated with the development of this unusual syndrome. Researchers also are studying the possible connection with personality disorders, which are common in these individuals.
Treatment of factitious disorder is often difficult, and there are no standard therapies. Because people with factitious disorder want to be in the sick role, they're often unwilling to look for help or accept treatment for the disorder. However, if approached in a gentle, nonjudgmental way, a person with factitious disorder may agree to be treated by a mental health professional.
Some people will suffer only a single episode of symptoms. In most cases, however, the disorder is a recurring condition that can be extremely difficult to treat. Many people with this syndrome will deny they are faking symptoms and will not seek or follow treatment. Even with treatment, it is more realistic to work toward managing the disorder rather than to try curing it. Avoiding unnecessary, inappropriate admissions to the hospital, testing, or treatment is of crucial importance when approaching this disease.