Mental health

June 2011


Explaining the unexplainable

Crafting explanatory frameworks for medically unexplained symptoms

Volume 40, No.6, June 2011 Pages 440-444

Louise Stone


Patients with multiple medically unexplained symptoms are common in general practice. Comorbid depression, anxiety, substance abuse and significant psychosocial stressors are common. It can be challenging to find a balance between excluding and treating organic causes and overinvestigating and overtreating.


This article provides the general practitioner with a suggested framework for explaining multiple medically unexplained symptoms to patients.


An adequate explanation of the problem is important. General practitioners can use a number of explanatory models, including reassurance, somatisation and narrative techniques. Sometimes a solution to a specific problem is available and may involve referral to other health professionals. In many cases the more important management strategy may be to provide supportive care by being with the sufferer and acknowledging the suffering, without succumbing to the urge to fix the problem. General practitioners have a unique role in supporting patients who cope with symptoms, but without a clear medical diagnosis.

‘Nobody wants an anonymous illness’1

Medically unexplained symptoms are defined as ‘those symptoms having little or no basis in underlying organic disease (or) when organic disease exists, the symptoms are inconsistent with it or out of proportion to it’.2

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