Factitious disorder is a syndrome in which patients induce, feign, or exaggerate physical or psychiatric symptoms. These patients are motivated purely by internal gains, such as a desire for attention, coping with stress, or enjoyment in stumping healthcare workers. Patients with factitious disorder may pose a significant danger to themselves. Additionally, they often over-utilize limited healthcare resources. The inherent deception in this condition poses a significant challenge for healthcare providers in making a diagnosis. Due to a lack of willing participants for large-scale randomized treatment trials, evidence-based recommendations for the management of these patients is limited. Current recommendations are largely based on expert opinion, case reports, and systematic reviews. Based on information from these sources, treatment options are limited, and the prognosis for these patients is generally poor.
The etiology of factitious disorder is largely based on speculation. There are no high-quality, large-scale studies demonstrating consistent etiological factors; however, observations have been made based on case reports and small studies. Many experts consider factitious disorder to be largely developmental. It is thought that the behaviors exhibited are a maladaptive response to life events, especially during childhood. This reasoning is supported by several commonalities among patients with factitious disorder:
There are several proposed mechanisms behind the behavior found in factitious disorder:
Some experts have described factitious disorder as a type of behavioral addiction. Patients with factitious disorder have described an uncontrollable urge to maintain the sick role and, conversely, a desire to overcome their dependence.
The prevalence of factitious disorder in the general population is very difficult to estimate and varies widely among different studies. Due to the secretive nature of this disorder, it is likely underdiagnosed; further, there is no defined threshold for the level of deception required to make a diagnosis. One study involving 241 german physicians in primary care and various subspecialty fields estimated factitious disorder prevalence to be 1.3%. Another study analyzing 100 consecutive admissions to an inpatient psychiatric ward in New York found a diagnosis of factitious disorder in 6% of the study population.
Originally, factitious disorder was thought to be more common in men; however, recent studies have found it to be much more common in females. It is interesting that male predominance has been noted in various presentations of factitious disorder, including psychiatric, cardiac, or HIV related symptoms and in very severe or dramatic presentations. Among patients with factitious disorder, history of working in healthcare is very common. Patient’s age at diagnosis varies widely, but most often, factitious disorder is discovered in early adulthood or middle age. These patients also tend to be well educated and are often employed or full-time students.
Little is known about the pathophysiology of factitious disorder. One study of five individuals with a diagnosis of factitious disorder found that all had excellent intellectual and verbal skills, but neuropsychological testing revealed deficits in conceptual organization and judgment. Based on this, the authors hypothesized that factitious disorder may be related to dysfunction in the right cerebral hemisphere in certain patients. Numerous isolated case reports exist documenting neuroimaging and other findings in patients with factitious disorder. These include hyperperfusion of the right hemithalamus, pathological EEG findings, and mitochondrial disorders.
Patients with factitious disorder may present to any specialty with self-induced, feigned, or exaggerated symptoms. Some patients with factitious disorder present with simple but serious symptoms such as chest pain, as they know this is more likely to result in hospital admission. Other patients may present with much more complex and elaborate symptoms. A good history and physical exam are essential in making the diagnosis. Many clues may raise a clinician's suspicion, including:
The diagnosis of factitious disorder is most often based on DSM-5 criteria:
If factitious disorder is suspected, evaluation should be geared toward providing objective evidence of deception and falsification of a medical or psychiatric condition. There are many findings on evaluation that could help lead to a diagnosis. These include:
In certain cases, evidence such as direct observation of the behavior or lab values such as laxatives found in the stool may simplify diagnosis. However, many cases lack definitive evidence, and determining what level of evidence is sufficient for diagnosis may be challenging.
Some argue that the DSM does not recognize that deception is normal human behavior and should not be considered pathologic in all cases. It is very common for patients to exaggerate symptoms to receive that attention they desire. This further complicates diagnosis because the threshold at which the behavior is considered pathological is not always clear.
Studies show that the only currently available effective treatment for factitious disorder is psychotherapy. Based on available research, medication does not significantly improve symptoms of factitious disorder. However, patients with factitious disorder often have comorbid psychiatric conditions such as depression. In these patients, it is important to treat the comorbid symptoms appropriately, as this may indirectly improve factitious behavior.
The approach taken by a clinician in an effort to initiate treatment has been somewhat controversial. One major barrier to initiating proper treatment is the willingness of the patient. Many experts feel that it is necessary to confront the patient prior to any treatment. It is imperative that a strategy is developed, prior to the confrontation, which minimizes embarrassment and accusations. Some experts recommend that an interprofessional approach be utilized. Participants could include nurses, psychiatrists, primary care physicians, therapists, and family.
Oftentimes patients with factitious disorder will deny their behavior and refuse treatment when confronted. Some experts argue that once a diagnosis is made, confrontation is not necessary, and recommend an approach intended to build a trusting relationship with the patient. Therapeutic strategies may then be employed in an effort to reduce factitious behavior. Additionally, comorbid psychiatric conditions may also be treated with better success.
When a diagnosis of factitious disorder is suspected, it is important to consider other likely etiologies:
Patients with factitious disorder are generally considered to have a poor prognosis. When confronted, a majority of patients deny their behavior and very few consent to treatment. Of those who do initiate therapy, most drop out. However, there is evidence that patients who persist with long-term therapy have favorable outcomes.
Patients may have comorbid psychiatric conditions, most commonly depression. Patients with comorbid mood, anxiety, or substance use disorders generally have a better prognosis. Personality disorders, especially borderline personality disorder, are often comorbid with factitious disorders, and generally, these patients have a poor prognosis.
Factitious disorder is not a benign disease and is associated with high morbidity and mortality. Patients are known to cause potentially lethal self-injury and undergo risky procedures. Additionally, the cost to the healthcare system is substantial. There are case reports of patients costing the healthcare system hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A comprehensive history and physical exam can prevent the patient from undergoing unnecessary workup and risky procedures. Thorough documentation of all findings and diagnoses in patients with factitious disorder is important for future reference of providers caring for these patients.
Patients with factitious disorder often deny behavior when confronted, and many are lost to follow-up. However, attempts should be made to initiate proper treatment and provide appropriate care for this population.
Factitious disorder is an inherently secretive disorder, and thus, many patients go undiagnosed and untreated. These patients may present to nearly any specialty. Many physicians and other healthcare providers are not familiar with the management of these patients and strategies for providing care. Healthcare providers must familiarize themselves with tools for identifying these patients to prevent unnecessary workup and risky procedures so that appropriate treatment may be initiated.
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