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Health (London). 2009 Sep;13(5):505-21. doi: 10.1177/1363459308336794.

Illness explanations among patients with medically unexplained symptoms: different idioms for different contexts.

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Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark.


Patients with medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) are often considered to be strictly confined to thinking about their symptoms as having only a physical etiology. However, several studies have shown, that the patients also apply other explanations for their sufferings. The aim of this study is to analyse the social construction of illness explanations among patients with MUS, and to illustrate the use of explanatory idioms as being dependent on space, time and setting, legitimizing each idiom. The study is based on repeated, semi-structured, qualitative interviews with nine informants during a period of 1.5 years. A thematic content analysis was performed on a pragmatic and phenomenological basis. We found, that patients with MUS employ at least four different explanatory idioms defined as: (1) the symptomatic idiom; (2) the personal idiom; (3) the social idiom; and (4) the moral idiom. All idioms play an important role in the process of creating meaning in the patients' everyday life. The symptomatic idiom is mainly used at clinical consultations in primary care, but it is not the only idiom of significance for the patients. Simultaneously other idioms exist and gradually become important for especially patients with MUS due to the lack of valid diagnoses and treatment opportunities. Clinical settings, however, call for the employment of the symptomatic idiom and a discrepancy is found between the general practitioners' notion of the bio-psycho-social model and the patients' everyday life idioms.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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