Public Familiarity With the Terms Somatoform Disorder and Functional Disorder in Germany: Results From a Representative Population Survey

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Objective: The terms somatoform disorder and functional disorder have been criticized for hindering rather than facilitating clinical communication, and physicians may rarely use these terms when communicating with patients who might be eligible for these diagnoses. However, no study has yet examined the extent to which patients at risk for these disorders are familiar with the diagnostic terms. Therefore, the primary aim of this study was to examine whether people at risk for a somatoform disorder (ie, those with medically unexplained somatic symptoms) are more familiar with the 2 terms than others.

Method: Participants in a representative German population sample (N = 2,471) were asked whether they were familiar with the terms somatoform disorder and functional disorder. The mean (SD) age of the sample was 50.5 (18.6) years, and 53.9% were women. Sociodemographic variables, (unexplained) physical ailments, doctor visits, depression, and anxiety were also assessed. Data were collected from November 2009 to December 2009.

Results: Of the sample, 19.5% and 54.0% reported being familiar with the terms somatoform disorder and functional disorder, respectively. Participants with medically unexplained symptoms did not have a higher probability of knowing the terms somatoform disorder (odds ratio = 0.98, 95% CI = 0.57–1.68) or functional disorder (odds ratio = 1.32, 95% CI = 0.86–2.04) compared to all others.

Conclusions: Participants with a potential somatoform disorder did not differ in their familiarity ratings from others. We conclude that these diagnostic terms are probably not commonly used by physicians in routine clinical communication with patients suffering from unexplained medical symptoms. Future empirical research should investigate whether the currently proposed diagnosis complex somatic symptom disorder can solve current problems of acceptability, communication, and adequate treatment.

Prim Care Companion CNS Disord 2012;14(1):doi:10.4088/PCC.11m01209

Submitted: May 3, 2011; accepted July 22, 2011.

Published online: January 19, 2012.

Corresponding author: Annabel Nagel, DiplPsych, Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Martinistr 52, 20246 Hamburg, Germany (

Prim Care Companion CNS Disord 2012;14(1):doi:10.4088/PCC.11m01209