I'm really confused because it seems to me these terms overlap to some extent.

Psychosomatic disorder

adj. 1. of or pertaining to a physical disorder that is caused or notably influenced by emotional factors.
American Heritage Dictionary

1. (Psychology) of or relating to disorders, such as stomach ulcers, thought to be caused or aggravated by psychological factors such as stress
Collins English Dictionary

somatoform disorder (called somatic symptom disorder since DSM-V)

denoting physical symptoms that can not be attributed to organic disease and appear to be of psychic origin.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health

denoting physical symptoms that cannot be attributed to organic disease and appear to be psychogenic.
Dorland's Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers

In both cases these terms seem to be used for physical symptoms which rather than being attributed to physical conditions, are based on mental factors, ie., psychogenic.

Also, three of these definitions are framed in terms of "thought to be caused by psychological factors", "appear to be of psychic origin" and "appear to be psychogenic." Given that these three terms imply cause is not known with certainty they are idiopathic, right?

Of, relating to, or designating a disease having no known cause.
American Heritage Dictionary

From looking at these two meanings of psychosomatic disorder and somatoform disorder, am I mistaken in perceiving them the same way, or at least confusingly almost the same thing? One says "relating to disorders ... thought to be caused or aggravated by psychological factors" and the other says "denoting physical symptoms ... (that) appear to be of psychic origin."

Could someone clarify what the differences are in light of the definitions, which seem quite the same to me?


2 Answers 2


This is purely all about terminology.

Somatic means of the body; bodily; physical. whereas the psycho part of psychosomatic refers to the fact that the somatic problem (symptom or disorder) is created through psychological means (with no medical evidence of a physical problem e.g. broken bone and/or torn ligaments).

Symptom refers to an observable behaviour or state, whilst disorder refers to a cluster of symptoms.

Somatoform refers to a physical symptom that cannot be attributed to organic disease and appears to be psychogenic (Dorland's Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers, 2007).

Somatoform disorder refers to a set of psychosomatic symptoms (somatoforms) (Smith & Józefowicz, 2012).

Idiopathic, as you pointed out is

Of, relating to, or designating a disease having no known cause.

Further clarification

Psychosomatic is a word describing a somatoform. A psychological problem is a somatised (Al Busaidi, 2010), and therefore is producing the experience of somatic symptoms, which are in fact psychogenic.

If a medical problem is considered idiopathic, the issue of whether it is somatic or psychosomatic is not determined. It cannot be both psychosomatic and idiopathic at the same time.


Al Busaidi, Z. Q. (2010). The concept of somatisation: a cross-cultural perspective. Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal, 10(2), 180. Pubmed: PMC3074701

Dorland's Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers. (2007). Retrieved from: https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/somatoform

Smith, J. K., & Józefowicz, R. F. (2012). Diagnosis and treatment of somatoform disorders. Neurology: Clinical Practice, 2(2), 94-102. doi: 10.1212/CPJ.0b013e31825a6183

  • $\begingroup$ So it seems psychosomatic and somatoform seem to have the same meaning in the sense that they describe a physical symptom "created through psychological means" or is psychogenic? I take it they're not all idiopathic? The definitions seem to hint at it by saying "appear to be of psychic origin", and "appear to be psychogenic" which seem to imply uncertainty. I'm not sure if that qualifies for idiopathic. Then again, I could hypothetically imagine a somatoform disorder confidently attributed to major depression, for example, then the cause would be known and would not be idiopathic. $\endgroup$
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ "It cannot be both psychosomatic and idiopathic at the same time." So it sounds like you're saying the word "idiopathic" can't be used to describe a disease with an unknown psychogenic cause. $\endgroup$
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 9:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Note that psychosomatic symptoms can still have a non-brain physical cause, for example if they are a result of mental stress. I don't believe anyone considers somatoform disorders to include mental stress, however. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 16:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I believe, the terms psychosomatic, psychogenic and somatoform all mean that a physical problem results from psychological problems, so it could be useful if you make this clear in the answer (it's only about how the usage of these terms has changed with time). The fourth term, that basically means the same, is "functional," for example functional gastrointestinal disorders with emphasis on "brain-gut axis." $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ I think that neurologically derived problems are named just that: neurological. For example, the mechanism by which multiple sclerosis affects the gut would not be described with "brain-gut axis." I know that the usage of the term is more in the sense "functional vs structural" rather than "psychological vs somatic" but I strongly believe a lot of disorders that are described as functional are actually psychological. Anyway, no need to bother with this, because it was not strictly asked. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 13:30

Psychosomatic is a disease that is both physical and psychological and can cause increase in symptoms such as eczema, psoriasis, ulcers, etc. They can cause serious physical problems. Somatic is a symptom of a physical symptom with no possible reasons for such like a woman being appearing pregnant with all the symptoms while not being pregnant. A somatic disorder is when is goes on too long. Idiopathic means there is a possible physical cause or psychological cause but neither is known. For example fibromyalgia used to be considered idiopathic and is now a known disease although we’re still uncertain if it is somatic or if it is psychosomatic, HIV used to be considered idiopathic as well. This is just the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t fully explain the similarities and differences. Proper research and understanding should be done.

  • $\begingroup$ Psychosomatic means it can be caused by psychological and physical reasons for example bug bites, chemical reactions, etc can cause an eczema flare while the disease itself is caused by stress as well. Somatic means more than that such as some psychological need being suppressed to the point that someone manifests physical symptoms of their psychological problems a non pregnant woman experiencing pregnancy symptoms after miscarriage. Idiopathic suggests that it may be psychological or physical but nobody knows the cause. $\endgroup$
    – Trista
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 6:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Stack Exchange! Note that you can edit your answer, rather than commenting on it. Have a look at the tour for more information. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 8:49

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