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'Environmental' Ills Often Psychosomatic
Excerpt By Ned Stafford, Reuters Health

FRANKFURT (Reuters Health) - As many as 60% of patients with symptoms that they attribute to environmental pollutants are in fact suffering from psychological problems, according to a recently released German study.

Lead researcher Dr. Hermann Ebel, director of the Hospital for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy/Psychosomatic Medicine in Ludwigsburg, notes that cases of illnesses attributed to pollution in air, water or food are rising. Symptoms linked to such causes often include headaches, sleeplessness, breathing difficulties, inability to concentrate and skin problems.

Ebel and a team of environmental scientists, dermatologists, allergists and psychiatrists evaluated 50 patients who reported symptoms they attributed to environmental causes, such as pollution.

In many cases, patients were found to have a fixation on environmental dangers and spent a large amount of time reading news stories or watching TV programs on the subject, the group told a meeting of the German Society of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Mental Health (DGPPN).

Ebel told Reuters Health that 60% of study participants who displayed symptoms of such ``environmental'' illnesses were instead suffering from mental problems.

``This is really not a surprise,'' he said. ``Other studies, in Sweden, the US and UK, have reached the same conclusion.''

Professor Max Schmauss, president of the DGPPN, noted in a statement that such ``environmental'' health problems ``occur almost exclusively in western industrial nations. In poorer countries they do not play a role, although the environmental pollution often represents a still larger problem here. That points on the fact that this phenomenon is bound by certain cultural and social prerequisites.''

Nevertheless, he added, such patients genuinely suffer from their complaints and are often disabled by their ailments.

Ebel said that determining the psychosomatic nature of symptoms can help physicians prescribe effective treatments, such as relaxation training and social skills training.

For patients with depression or phobias, Ebel said, medicines such as antidepressants or antipsychotics were successful in treating their symptoms.

The German physician conceded that of those 60% whose illnesses appear to be psychological, a small fraction might be suffering from a disease that cannot be detected by medical tools now available.

``It is possible that in 10 to 15 years, some illnesses we now think are psychosomatic (will be found to be) from organic causes,'' he added.


Reference Source 89

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