psychosomatic medicine (sĪˌkōsōmătˈĭk) [key], study and treatment of those emotional disturbances that are manifested as physical disorders. The term psychosomatic emphasizes essential unity of the psyche and the soma, a combination rooted in ancient Greek medicine. Common disorders caused at least partly by psychological factors include childhood asthma, certain gastrointestinal problems, hypertension, endocrine disturbances, diabetes, and possibly even heart disease. In most psychosomatic conditions there is some interaction between psychological factors and physiological predisposition to the illness. Sigmund Freud, at the end of the 19th cent., laid the scientific groundwork for psychosomatic study, with his theoretical formulations based on new methods of treating hysteria. His methods were reinforced by the psychobiology of the American psychiatrist Adolf Meyer and the research of the American physiologist W. B. Cannon on the physiological effects of acute emotion. The treatment of psychosomatic ailments may involve a medical regimen as well as some form of psychotherapy for the patient. In recent years, psychosomatic medicine has been subsumed under the broader field of behavioral medicine, which includes the study of a wider range of physical ailments. Understanding the psychological causes of various ailments is crucial: studies suggest that a large percentage of deaths are rooted in behavior. In the 1960s, concepts related to conditioning gained prominence, as researchers found that humans and animals could learn to control their autonomic nervous system responses, usually involved in psychosomatic complaints. Emerging from this research came the technique of biofeedback that provides individuals with information concerning their own physiological responses, which they may begin to alter through conscious techniques of control. The newest area of research related to psychosomatic medicine has been called psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the interactions of the endocrine system, central nervous system, and immune system. Researchers believe that studies of these biological systems can help to show how an individual becomes vulnerable to illness.
See J. M. Kuldau, ed., Treatment for Psychosomatic Problems (1982); C. P. Wilson and I. L. Mintz, ed., Psychosomatic Symptoms (1989).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.