Study: Hypochondriacs Need Treatment

Contrary to common belief, hypochondriacs can and should be treated. Theirs is a condition, often related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which responds well to treatment with Prozac, as researchers at New York State Psychiatric Institute have found in the only treatment study of hypochondria in the United States funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

The conclusion is outlined in the newly released Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myths of Hypochondria (Houghton Mifflin) by Brian Fallon, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry, and Carla Cantor. Fallon holds a joint appointment at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, part of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

Dismissing persons because they are hypochondriacal is not likely to benefit them.

They have a legitimate disorder even if the doctors they so often visit cannot find the cause. In fact, patients with symptoms for which there is no apparent cause make up the bulk (Cantor says it is up to 60 percent) of those seeking doctors' help.

Fallon, who has studied the disorder for some years, says that people called hypochondriacs often exhibit the characteristics of OCD; they obsess about illness and bodily sensations and feel compelled to consult physician after physician. "People with hypochondria suffer from the expectation of harm and the tyranny of doubt," he said.

Although no controlled treatment studies of hypochondriasis have been completed to date and no epidemiologic studies of its prevalence in the general population have been conducted, Fallon has conducted studies that show Prozac to be an effective treatment.

He continues to study people with this exaggerated fear of illness, which he believes is the result of an imbalance of neurochemicals in the brain, in order to test the efficacy of medications like Prozac and Luvox, and to examine the possible co-existence of depression, OCD, panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.

People between the ages of 18 and 75 wishing to participate in the study and treatment of hypochondriasis may call Fallon at 960-2487. Those eligible for free treatment (i.e. if they are free of an active significant medical disease and are not likely to become pregnant) may be enrolled in medication trials and/or group therapy sessions involving cognitive education.

Columbia University Record -- April 19, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 24