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Open Access Research article

Prevalence and course of somatic symptoms in patients with stress-related exhaustion: does sex or age matter

Kristina Glise12*, Gunnar Ahlborg12 and Ingibjörg H Jonsdottir1

Author Affiliations

1 The Institute of Stress Medicine, Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Carl Skottsbergs gata 22B, Göteborg SE-413 19, Sweden

2 Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

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BMC Psychiatry 2014, 14:118  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-14-118

Published: 23 April 2014



Both mental and somatic symptoms are commonly reported in patients with stress-related problems. We have explored the prevalence of somatic symptoms in patients seeking medical care for stress-related mental health problems and followed the course of illnes alongside with that the patients receive multimodal treatment.


This study comprises data from 228 patients (69% women, mean age 43 years) who fulfilled the criteria for Exhaustion Disorder (ED). Somatic symptoms were assessed at baseline and after 3, 6, 12 and 18 months using the one-page questionnaire Primary Care Evaluation of Mental Disorders. Prevalence of different symptoms was compared between men and women and patients, over and below 40 years of age, and possible predictors of recovery were explored.


Tiredness and low energy are the core symptom reported by the patients. Almost all (98%) reported at least one somatic symptom and 45% reported six symptoms or more, which was similar for men and women. Nausea, gas or indigestion are the most common symptoms (67%) followed by headaches (65%) and dizziness (57%). The number of symptoms reported was significantly related to the severity of mental health problems. The only difference between the sexes was that “chest pain” and “pain or problems during sexual intercourse” were more common among males. Patients over forty more often reported “pain in arms, legs or joints, knees, hips” and this was also the only symptom that did not significantly decline during treatment. Neither sex, age, symptom duration before seeking medical care, education or any other predictor tested was shown to predict recovery in patients reporting six symptoms or more.


A heavy burden of somatic symptoms was generally seen in most patients with stress-related exhaustion. Somatic symptoms are equally common in males and females and in younger and older patients. The somatic symptoms seem to be mostly stress-related since all symptoms, except musculoskeletal pain, reduce with individualised treatment designed for stress-related mental problems. This study brings to attention the complicated burden of both somatic and mental symptoms in patients with stress-related exhaustion, raising several clinical implications of interest to discuss.

Stress; Exhaustion; Burnout; Sex; Age; Somatic symptoms