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Unexplained versus explained symptoms: the difference is not in patients’ language use: a quantitative analysis of linguistic markers.

Stortenbeker, I., Olde Hartman, T., Kwerreveld, A., Stommel, W., Dulmen, S. van, Das, E. Unexplained versus explained symptoms: the difference is not in patients’ language use: a quantitative analysis of linguistic markers. Journal of Psychosomatic Research: 2022, 152, Art. nr. 110667
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Objective
Patients with medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) are believed to have a deviant way of talking about complaints. This study systematically compared linguistic markers in symptom presentations of patients with MUS and medically explained symptoms (MES).

Methods
This content analysis (cross-sectional study) conceptualized relevant linguistic markers based on previous research about MUS communication. Linguistic markers included negations (“not”), intensifiers (“very”), diminishers (“a little”), first or third person subject (“I” vs. “my body”), subjectivity markers (“I think”) and abstraction (“I'm gasping for breath” vs. “I'm short of breath”). We also coded valence, reference to physical or mental states, and consultation phase. We compared 41 MUS and 41 MES transcribed video-recorded general practice consultations. Data were analyzed with binary random intercepts models.

Results
We selected and coded 2752 relevant utterances. Patients with MUS used less diminishers compared to patients with MES, but this main effect disappeared when consultation phase was included as predictor. For all other linguistic variables, the analyses did not reveal any variation in language use based on whether patients had MUS or MES. Importantly, utterances' valence and reference to physical or mental state did predict the use of linguistic markers.

Conclusion
We observed no systematic variations in linguistic markers for patients who suffered from MUS compared to MES. Patients varied their language use based on utterances' valence and reference to physical or mental states. Current ideas about deviant patient communication may be based on stigmatized perceptions of how patients with MUS communicate, rather than actual differences in their talk.