Gastrointestinal Symptoms and Psychiatric Disorders in the General Population: Findings from NIMH Epidemiologic Catchment Area Project

Carol S North, David H. Alpers, Sanna J. Thompson, Edward L. Spitznagel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


High rates of psychiatric disorder have been documented in patients with functional bowel syndromes sampled from physicians' offices. Lifetime psychiatric disorders and/or current psychiatric symptoms are thought to be much more highly associated with current gastrointestinal bowel symptoms in clinical settings than in the community. The relationship of lifetime functional gastrointestinal symptoms to lifetime psychiatric disorders has not been examined systematically in randomly selected samples of general community populations. The current study reports findings from existing data on a large, randomly selected population sample that may help to clarify these associations. Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) project data were analyzed to examine relationships of functional gastrointestinal symptoms and psychiatric diagnoses in the community. Individuals with two or more medically unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms had high rates of psychiatric disorders. This was also true for the subgroup in which abdominal pain was one of the two symptoms. The overwhelming majority of subjects reporting medically unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms said they had consulted physicians for those symptoms. General population ECA data indicate that women in the community report more functional gastrointestinal complaints than men, that individuals with lifetime gastrointestinal complaints have high rates of lifetime psychiatric disorders (not necessarily currently symptomatic), and most have contacted a physician regarding their gastrointestinal symptoms. These data complement studies showing that patients with current gastrointestinal symptoms often do not consult a physician, or when they do, such behavior is associated with active psychiatric symptoms. The present data are consistent with the hypothesis that patients with recurrent symptoms are those who routinely seek medical help and who have high rates of psychiatric disorders, whereas those with symptoms that resolve or are improved by a medical intervention do not maintain treatment-seeking behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)633-640
Number of pages8
JournalDigestive Diseases and Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 1 1996


  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Psychiatric disorders

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Gastroenterology


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