One of the most interesting psychological disorders is Münchausen Syndrome (MS) and is sometimes referred to more colloquially as ‘hospital addiction syndrome’, ‘hospital hopper syndrome’ and ‘thick chart syndrome’. MS is currently classified in the most recent International Classification of Diseases under ‘other disorders of adult personality’. The primary characteristic of people suffering from MS is that they deliberately pretend to be ill in the absence of external incentives (such as criminal prosecution or financial gain). MS has been called a factitious disorder because sufferers feign illness, pretend to have a disease, and/or fake psychological trauma typically to gain attention and/or sympathy from other people. Doctors often nickname such people as ‘frequent flyers’. The name of the syndrome was coined in 1951 by Dr. Richard Asher (in a paper he published in The Lancet about people who fabricated illnesses) and derives from German Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen (aka Baron Münchausen), a renowned eighteenth century nobleman, who was reported as telling many fantastical and impossible stories about himself.
A related condition is Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy refers to the abuse of someone else (quite often a child son or daughter), also as a way of seeking attention and/or sympathy for the sufferer. Some members of the medical community believe that this related MS condition should simply be re-named ‘medical abuse’). There are also some specific sub-types of MS. For instance, a 2011 paper in the Journal of Electrocardiology, by Dr. Joseph Vaglio reported a female case of Arrhythmogenic Münchausen Syndrome who intentionally simulated and stimulated irregular cardiac activity to gain medical attention by drinking (and overdosing) on caffeine.
According to Dr. A.J. Giannini and Dr. H.R. Black in the Psychiatric, Psychogenic and Somatopsychic Disorders Handbook, one of the most common signs among MS sufferers is that they may have multiple scars on their abdomen because of repeated exploratory or emergency operations. Other ‘warning signs’ listed on the Web MD website of MS include: (i) dramatic but inconsistent medical history, (ii) predictable relapses following improvement in the condition, (iii) detailed knowledge of hospitals and/or medical terminology, (iv) appearance of new or additional symptoms following negative test results, (v) willingness or eagerness to have medical procedures, (vi) history of seeking treatment at numerous hospitals, clinics, and doctors offices, possibly even in different cities, and (vii) problems with identity and self-esteem.
There has been a debate about whether MS should have been re-classified in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For instance, in a 2008 issue of the journal Psychosomatics, Dr. Lois Krahn and her colleagues argued that MS should be classed as a somatoform disorder because MS sufferers may not be conscious that they are drawing attention to themselves. [According to Wikipedia, a somatoform disorder “is a mental disorder characterized by symptoms that suggest physical illness or injury – symptoms that cannot be explained fully by a general medical condition or by the direct effect of a substance, and are not attributable to another mental disorder”]. More specifically, Krahn and her colleagues noted:
“Factitious and somatoform-disorder patients are alike in that they both organize their lives around seeking medical services in spite of having primarily a psychiatric condition. In DSM–IV, the key difference is that factitious-disorder patients feign illness, and somatoform disorder patients actually believe they are ill. Although patients may not be conscious of their motivation or even their behaviors, deliberately embellishing history or inducing symptoms exemplifies behaviors designed to enhance a self-concept of being ill. For DSM–V, we propose reclassifying factitious disorder as a subtype within the somatoform-spectrum disorders or the proposed physical-symptom disorder, premised on our belief that deliberate deceptions serve primarily to portray to treaters the sense of being ill”.
This appears to be part of the same debate that says MS is distinct from hypochondriasis in that MS patients are said to be aware that they are exaggerating their illness or disease, whereas hypochondriasis sufferers actually believe they have an illness or disease. Another way of looking at it is that MS sufferers want to be a patient whereas those with hypochondriasis don’t. One of the more unusual consequences of MS is that the affected individual will often undergo unnecessary medical procedures, treatments and/or exploratory operations to prolong hospital stay and gain sympathy and attention from those around them including the medical and nursing staff. It is also known that some MS patients have very good medical knowledge and use this as a way of creating and/or producing symptoms of known medical conditions.
Some of the reported risk factors for individuals that develop MS include (i) a history of childhood traumas and (ii) emotional deprivation (e.g., having parents or guardians that were emotionally unavailable due to illness and/or emotional problems while the individual was a child). In relation to treatment and prognosis, the Wikipedia entry on MS asserts:
“Providers need to acknowledge that there is uncertainty in treating suspected Münchausen patients so that real diseases are not under-treated. Then they should take a careful patient history and seek medical records, to look for early deprivation, childhood abuse, or mental illness. If a patient is at risk to himself or herself, inpatient psychiatric hospitalization should be initiated…Therapeutic and medical treatment should center on the underlying psychiatric disorder: a mood disorder, an anxiety disorder, or borderline personality disorder. The patient’s prognosis depends upon the category under which the underlying disorder falls; depression and anxiety, for example, generally respond well to medication and/or cognitive-behavioral therapy, whereas borderline personality disorder, like all personality disorders is presumed to be pervasive and more stable over time, thus offers the worst or best prognosis”.
Unfortunately there are no reliable statistics regarding the number of people who suffer from MS. Research suggests that both males and females are affected in roughly equal numbers and that the mean age of presentation is 36-years old. This is certainly one behaviour that we could do with more empirical research.
Asher, R. (1951). Munchausen’s syndrome. The Lancet, 1, 339–341.
Bhugra D. (1988). Psychiatric Munchausen’s syndrome. Literature review with case reports. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 77, 497–503.
Feldman, M.D., Hamilton, J.C & Deemer, H.N. (2001). Factitious Disorder. In K.A. Phillips (Eds.), Somatoform and Factitious Disorders. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
Giannini A.J. & HR Black, H.R. (1978). Psychiatric, Psychogenic and Somatopsychic Disorders Handbook (pp.194-195). New Hyde Park, NY. Medical Examination Publishing.
Krahn, L.E., Bostwick, J.M. & Stonnington, C.M. (2008). Looking toward DSM-V: Should factitious disorder become a subtype of somatoform disorder? Psychosomatics, 49, 277–282.
Vaglio, J. C., Schoenhard, J. A., Saavedra, P. J., Williams, S. R., & Raj, S. R. (2011). Arrhythmogenic Munchausen syndrome culminating in caffeine-induced ventricular tachycardia. Journal of Electrocardiology, 44, 229-231.
Wikipedia (2013). Münchausen syndrome. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Münchausen_syndrome
I have to say that I have no idea what it must be like to lose an eye (i.e., enucleation) but one thing I can’t possibly begin to imagine is what it must like is to remove my own eye (i.e., auto-enucleation). However, there are many clinical and medical reports of people that self-mutilate by stabbing or removing their eye(s). Arguably the most infamous auto-enucleator was Oedipus (in Sophocles’ play) who removed both his eyes after he realized he had unwittingly slept with his own mother and killed his own father.
The psychiatrist Dr. Armando Favazza defines self-mutilation as “the deliberate, direct, non-suicidal destruction or alteration of one’s body tissue”. Dr. Niraj Ahuja and Dr. Adrian Lloyd writing in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry also add that self-mutilation relates to bodily self-damage without wishing to die. Dr. Favazza also believes there are three fundamentally different types of self-mutilation. Enucleation is included in the first type (major self-mutilation) and is the least common. Other forms of self-mutilation in this category include self-castration, penectomy (cutting off one’s own penis) and self-limb amputation.
The second type includes “monotonously repetitive and sometimes rhythmic acts such as head-banging, hitting, and self-biting” (which according to Dr Favazza occur mostly in “moderate to severely mentally retarded persons as well as in cases of autism and Tourette’s syndrome”). The final and most common forms of bodily self-mutilation are moderately superficial and include a compulsive sub-type (e.g., hair-pulling, skin scratching and nail-biting), as well as an episodic/repetitive sub-type (e.g., skin-cutting, skin carving, burning, needle sticking, bone breaking, and wound picking). Many of these self-harming behaviours are a symptom and/or an associated feature in a number of mental personality disorders (e.g., anti-social, borderline, and histrionic personality disorders).
Reports of auto-enucleation in the medical literature were first described in the 1840s. By the early 1900s, the act of removing one’s own eye was actually termed ‘Oedipism’ by Blonel. Auto-enucleation is (of course) exceedingly rare although a couple of studies in the American Journal of Ophthalmology (in 1984) and an analysis of 1,146 enucleations between 1980 and 1990 in the British Journal of Ophthalmology (in 1994) estimated there were 2.8 to 4.3 per 100,000 in the population. However, some papers (such as those by Dr. Favazza) on major self-mutilation have put the incidence as low as one in 4 million.
Enucleators are also known to be at increased risk of further self-harming, and (predictably) are more likely to be living in psychiatric institutions when the auto-enucleation event occurs. They are also at increased risk of removing the second eye at a later date if they didn’t pull out both eyes to start with. A review by Dr. H.R. Krauss and colleagues in a 1984 issue of the Survey of Opthalmology examined 50 cases of self-enucleation and reported that 19 of them had bilateral auto-enucleation (i.e., had removed both of their eyes). A 2007 paper by Dr. Alireza Ghaffari-Nejad and colleagues in the Archives of Iranian Medicine examined the many theories behind self-harming behaviour. They briefly overviewed theories ranging from Fruedian psychoanalytic theory to biologically-based theories. They wrote:
Psychoanalytically self-injurious behaviour has been linked to castration and explained as a process of failure to resolve oedipal complex, repressed impulses, self punishment, focal suicide and aggression turned inwards especially in cases of depression. [Other authors] have postulated interpersonal loss preceding self-injurious behaviour and linked it to rejection sensitivity…Biologically serotonergic depletion preceding self-mutilation has been linked to aggression and depression…Some authors have claimed strong moral, religious and delusional component”
A recent literature review by Dr. Alexander Fan in the journal Psychiatry reported that the vast majority of auto-enucleation cases suffer from psychotic illness (particularly schizophrenia) although other medical and/or psychiatric conditions associated with auto-enucleation include obsessive-compulsive neuroses, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, drug-induced psychoses, bipolar mania. There are also case studies where auto-enucleation has been linked with structural brain lesions, Down Syndrome, epilepsy, neurosyphilis, and Lesch-Nyhan syndrome (juvenile gout). These are similar to other forms of extreme self-mutilation. For instance, self-mutilation in schizophrenia in response to auditory hallucinations has often been described as Van Gogh Syndrome (in reference to the painter’s self-excision of his own left ear)
Other reviews of the psychiatric literature have reported that those who remove their own eyes commonly have delusions (typically sexual and/or religious) and that when asked about motivations for self-harming include reasons such as guilt, atonement, sin, evil, etc. Although some authors have noted that enucleators with religious beliefs are often Christian, other case studies have made reference to other religious faiths (e.g., Muslims). Finally, another paper by Favazza in Hospital and Community Psychiatry concluded that:
“Males in a first episode of a schizophrenic illness that is characterized by delusions associated with a body part or religious delusions are at the greatest risk for MSM [major self-mutilation]. However, MSM of this severity is so rare that it cannot be predicted accurately unless there has been a previous attempt at self-injury or the patient has spoken about wanting to remove or injure an organ. Threatened ocular mutilation deserves special mention because it may occur in a hospital setting, and the case histories suggest that one-to-one nursing is not always be sufficient to prevent enucleation”.
Berguaa, A., Sperling, W. & Kuchlea M. (2002). Self-enucleation in drug-related psychosis. Ophthalmologica, 216, 269-271.
Eric, J.C., Nevitt, M.P., Hodge, D. & Ballard, D.J. (1984). Incidence of enucleation in a defined population. American Journal of Ophthalmology, 113, 138-44.
Fan, A.H. (2007). Autoenucleation: A case report and literature review. Psychiatry, October, 60-62.
Favazza, Armando (1998) ‘Introduction’, in Marilee Strong A Bright Red Scream: Self-mutilation and the Language of Pain. New York: Viking.
Favazza, A. & Rosenthal R. (1993). Diagnostic issues in self-mutilation. Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 44, 134-140.
Field, H. & Waldfogel, S. (1995). Severe ocular self-injury. General Hospital Psychiatry, 17, 224-227.
Gamulescu, M.A., Serguhn, S., Aigner, J.M., Lohmann, C.P., & Roider J. (2001). Enucleation as a form of self-aggression, two case reports and review of the literature. Klin Monatsbl Augenheilkd, 218, 451-454.
Ghaffari-Nejad, A., Kerdegari, M., & Reihani-Kermani, H. (2007) Self-mutilation of the nose in a schizophrenic patient with Cotard Syndrome. Archives of Iranian Medicine, 10, 540-542.
Gottrau, P., Holbach, L.M. & Nauman, G.O. (1994). Clinicopathological review of 1,146 enucleations (1980-90). British Journal of Ophthalmology, 78, 260-5.
Jeffreys, S. (2000). ‘Body art’ and social status: Cutting, tattooing and piercing from a feminist perspective Feminism and Psychology, 10, 409-429.
Krauss, H., Yee, R. & Foos, R. (1994). Autoenucleation. Survey of Ophthalmology, 29, 179-87.
MacLean, C. & Robertson, B.M. (1976). Self enucleation and psychosis. Archives of General Psychiatry, 33, 242-249.
Patil, B. & James, N. (2004). Bilateral self-enucleation of eyes. Eye, 18, 431-432.
Patton N. (2004). Self-inflicted eye injuries: A review. Eye, 18, 867-872.
Rao, K.N. & Begum, S. (1996) Self enucleation in depression; A case report. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 38, 267-70
Witherspoon, D., Feist, F., Morris, R. & Feist, R. (1989). Ocular self-mutilation. Annals of Ophthalmology, 21, 255-259.