Somatoform dissociation and posttraumatic stress syndrome - two sides of the same medal? A comparison of symptom profiles, trauma history and altered affect regulation between patients with functional neurological symptoms and patients with PTSD

Johanna Kienle, Brigitte Rockstroh, Martin Bohus, Johanna Fiess, Silke Huffziger, Astrid Steffen-Klatt
BMC Psychiatry 2017 July 11, 17 (1): 248

BACKGROUND: History of traumatic experience is common in dissociative disorder (DD), and similarity of symptoms and characteristics between DD and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) encouraged to consider DD as trauma-related disorder. However, conceptualization of DD as a trauma-related syndrome would critically affect diagnosis and treatment strategies. The present study addressed overlap and disparity of DD and PTSD by directly comparing correspondence of symptoms, adverse/traumatic experience, and altered affect regulation between patients diagnosed with dissociative disorder (characterized by negative functional neurological symptoms) and patients diagnosed with PTSD.

METHODS: Somatoform and psychoform dissociation, symptoms of posttraumatic stress, general childhood adversities and lifetime traumata, and alexithymia as index of altered affect regulation were screened with standardized questionnaires and semi-structured interviews in 60 patients with DD (ICD-codes F44.4, F44.6, F44.7), 39 patients with PTSD (ICD-code F43.1), and 40 healthy comparison participants (HC).

RESULTS: DD and PTSD patients scored higher than HC on somatoform and psychoform dissociative symptom scales and alexithymia, and reported more childhood adversities and higher trauma load. PTSD patients reported higher symptom severity and more traumata than DD patients. Those 20 DD patients who met criteria of co-occuring PTSD did not differ from PTSD patients in the amount of reported symptoms of somatoform dissociation, physical and emotional childhood adversities and lifetime traumata, while emotional neglect/abuse in childhood distinguished DD patients with and without co-occuring PTSD (DD patients with co-occuring PTSD reporting more emotional maltreatment).

CONCLUSION: The pattern of distinctive somatoform and psychoform dissociative symptom severity, type of childhood and lifetime traumata, and amount of alexithymia suggests that DD and PTSD are distinctive syndromes and, therefore, challenges the conceptualization of DD as trauma-related disorder. Together with the detected close correspondence of symptom and experience profiles in DD patients with co-occuring PTSD and PTSD patients, these findings suggest that adverse/traumatic experience may intensify dissociative symptoms, but are not a necessary condition in the generation of functional neurological symptoms. Still, diagnosis and treatment of DD need to consider this impact of traumata and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

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