Some people are known to overreact regarding their health, such as a hypochondriac thinking that she has kidney failure because her urine looks slightly frothier. However, some people far surpass the level of hypochondrias to the level of psychiatric disease.
Münchausen’s syndrome patients are known to exaggerate or create symptoms so that the doctor would pay attention to them. When the doctor investigates, treats and sympathises with the patient they gain satisfaction from all the attention they are receiving.
Although this may sound like hypochondrias, Münchausen’s is far more serious.
A Münchausen’s patients are known to cause symptoms just to get attention from others. For example, a common manoeuvre used is the injection of insulin to induce a hypoglycaemic seizure. When their symptoms are “treated”, the patient will most likely invent another factitious disease to be treated for a longer time. They will also seek out many different doctors when the attending doctor catches on to their act. In fact, a Münchausen’s patient will do almost anything to prolong medical care, even accepting unnecessary and risky procedures such as surgeries.
The key difference between Münchausen’s syndrome and hypochondriasis is that the patient is aware that they are not actually sick (hypochondriacs actually believe they are sick). The fundamental basis for Münchausen’s syndrome is the desire for attention. Thus, the main risk factor for developing Münchausen’s is childhood experience of seeing someone close (typically a family member) suffering a debilitating disease. For example, if a girl sees her sister suffering from leukaemia and receiving all the attention of everyone around her, she may develop feelings of jealousy and later try to duplicate the scenario. As a patient, the person feels safe and comfortable and this feeds their addiction to medical care.
As Münchausen’s patients are very proficient liars and act completely like an actual patient, doctors must rule out any diseases before suspecting that their patients have a psychiatric problem. However, some signs such as the patient being overly keen on receiving procedures such as biopsies or continuously developing random symptoms may indicate Münchausen’s.
Interestingly, a similar condition called Münchausen’s syndrome by proxy also exists, where a caregiver (e.g. mother) convinces a doctor that the person they are caring for (e.g. child) are sick. Unfortunately, as these patients actually cause illness in the child, it is considered a form of child abuse. Common “symptoms” include: growth problems, asthma, allergies, vomiting, diarrhoea, seizures and infections. This may lead to the child developing Münchausen’s syndrome in the future.