Pruritus Emeritus

When can your hypochondria help patients?


Hypochondria has been useful to my patients. I mean my own hypochondria. It may not take one to know one, but we hypochondriacs understand each other.

Dr. Alan Rockoff, now semiretired, after 40 years of practice in Brookline, Mass. He served on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

Hypochondriacs worry that we are sick, worry that our fears are foolish and that we will be mocked for worrying about nothing, and worry even more that this time, we finally worried about something after all. Reassurance leaves us sheepish, then elated. Elation soon fades, and a new worry appears. Worry, rinse, repeat. Hypochondriasis presents one kind of patient need that doctors have to deal with. Patients have many needs, some common, others all their own. Some folks are just needy. Soothing the needs of the needy can feel like trying to drain the seven seas with a teaspoon. Those who work with people must either find ways to cope with the spectrum of neediness, or find another kind of work to do.

Some patient needs call for diagnosis and treatment. Other needs go beyond the strictly medical. Beyond knowing whether they are ill, patients have questions like, “Will this get worse?” “Will I be ashamed to go out in public?” “Can I visit my grandchildren, or will my daughter-in-law throw me out as contagious?” “Is this the beginning of the end?” or, worst of all, “Am I losing my hair?”

The list of possible patient needs is long, though not endless. Lining them up one after the other can make them sound melodramatic, even silly. (Other people’s worries often sound silly; your own never do.) Can a small growth or slight itch really cause existential agitation? Anyone who deals with complaints like these knows that the answer is yes.

Hypochondriacs with medical degrees cannot reassure themselves, but we can bring useful experience to help other members of the worry club. Doing so means paying attention not just to what doctors worry about but what patients do.

Sometimes a patient is terrified, the doctor not at all. Gentle sympathy may be enough. But the reverse can also be true: The doctor is concerned, but the patient thinks there is no problem. Sometimes I am worried enough to ask a patient to call or email an update. Patients who have already stopped worrying may not bother to answer the phone or shoot back an email. Failure to respond may mean they are fine, or in intensive care. Silence is hard to interpret.

Skin doctors have one advantageous disadvantage: Few tests help us beyond a skin scraping, the odd blood test, or a biopsy. Otherwise, most of the time all we can do is look, and perhaps apply “tincture of time,” watching the clinical course. We cannot send patients for the complex and expensive tests our colleagues use “just to be sure,” because we have no such tests to send them for.

Practice and experience help us recognize needs and worries that patients might not express. For instance, a man may show up with pimples on his back. His concerns seem intense. “What worries you?” we ask. The patient whispers, “It couldn’t be ... shingles, could it?” No, it couldn’t be shingles, because it is bilateral and for many other reasons.

The question is not whether he has shingles but why he thinks he does. Maybe his aunt suggested it. Or an article told him to watch out for it. Or his pharmacy is promoting zoster vaccination by showing huge, full-color photos of shingles cases worthy of horror movies. (Shingles the 13th!) Because he wants to visit his grandkids and his daughter is in her fourth month of pregnancy. In other words, along with the fear of cancer, fear of shingles is just out there. There are other such public concerns. Over time, we come to recognize them.

Anyone can worry, but anxiety paralyzes some to such an extent that referral to a mental health professional seems reasonable. The problem with advising it is that patients who somaticize may take exception to suggestions, however delicately put, that make us sound dismissive, locating their concern “all in the head.” Over the years, my attempts to make such referrals have met with limited success.

Dealing with needs – and neediness – can take up more of a doctor’s day than making specific diagnoses and prescribing helpful treatments. Besides, addressing needs and neediness demands skills not always stressed at school.

Practice at noting neediness makes you better at it, but no doctor nails the true wellsprings of worry all the time. We hypochondriacs can be devilishly inventive.

Dr. Rockoff, who wrote the Dermatology News column “Under My Skin,” is now semiretired, after 40 years of practice in Brookline, Mass. He served on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His latest book, “Doctoring from the Outside In,” was recently published. Write to him at [email protected].

Next Article: