Munchausen Syndrome Overview
Munchausen syndrome is a condition in which a person intentionally fakes, simulates, worsens, or self-induces an injury or illness for the main purpose of being treated like a medical patient. Munchausen syndrome is named after a German military man, Baron von Munchausen, who traveled around telling fantastic tales about his imaginary exploits. In 1951, Richard Asher applied the term to people traveling from hospital to hospital, fabricating various illnesses.
The term Munchausen syndrome is often used interchangeably with factitious disorder. Factitious disorder refers to any illness that is intentionally produced for the main purpose of gaining attention associated with assuming the sick role, although that purpose is unknown to the "sick" person. Munchausen syndrome most appropriately describes people who have a chronic variant of a factitious disorder with mostly physical signs and symptoms, although there are reports in literature regarding psychological Munchausen syndrome, meaning that the simulated symptoms are psychiatric in nature.
People with Munchausen syndrome intentionally cause signs and symptoms of an illness or injury by inflicting medical harm to their body, often to the point of having to be hospitalized. These people are sometimes eager to undergo invasive medical interventions. They are also known to move from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, or town to town to find a new audience once they have exhausted the workup and treatment options available in a given medical setting. People with Munchausen syndrome may also make false claims about their accomplishments, credentials, relations to famous people, etc.
A related condition, called Munchausen by proxy syndrome, was described using that term in 1977 by Roy Meadow in cases involving caregivers who fake symptoms by causing injury to someone else, often a child, and then want to be with that person in a hospital or similar medical setting. Since mothers continue to be the primary caregivers in many societies, the mother is often the individual identified as having Munchausen syndrome by proxy, but anyone in the role of parent or caregiver may develop this condition. Accurate statistics on how many people have this condition are difficult to determine because of its secretive aspect. Estimates range from one in 1 million children to 2.8 in 100,000 children.
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