Cases That Test Your Skills

When the worry is worse than the actual illness

Author and Disclosure Information

After being diagnosed with a rare gastrointestinal disorder, Ms. S, age 16, has abdominal pain. She’s anxious, depressed, and overly worried about her prognosis. How do you help her?



CASE Distraught over a medical illness

Ms. S, age 16, presents to the emergency department (ED) accompanied by her mother with superficial lacerations on her arm. Ms. S states, “I cut my arm because I was afraid I was going to do something serious if I didn’t get to go to the ED.” She says that 6 months earlier, she was diagnosed with superior mesenteric artery syndrome (SMAS), a rare, potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the duodenum is compressed between the aorta and the superior mesenteric artery, causing a partial or complete blockage of the duodenum. Since receiving this diagnosis, Ms. S reports feeling anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed by both the pain she is experiencing from her illness and uncertainty about her prognosis.

HISTORY In pain and isolated

Since being diagnosed with SMAS, Ms. S has had approximately 30 medical and 7 ED visits for SMAS-related pain. Ms. S was referred to the outpatient clinic for ongoing support and treatment for SMAS.

Because of her pain and anxiety, Ms. S, a junior in high school, no longer attends school but has been working with a tutor. Ms. S says that some of her loneliness and hopelessness are due to the social isolation of being tutored at home. She states that she has been “out of sight and out of mind” from her friends. She also reports feeling different from them due to the pain brought on by SMAS.

Ms. S and her mother live in public housing. Ms. S says that overall, she has a good relationship with her mother, but that in certain situations, her mother’s anxiety causes her significant frustration and anxiety.

EVALUATION Transient suicidal thoughts

A physical examination reveals superficial lacerations to Ms. S’s left arm. Although she appears thin, her current body mass index (BMI) is 20.4 kg/m2, which is within normal range. She says she sees herself as “underweight” and “not fat at all.” Ms. S reports that she likes food and enjoyed eating until it became too painful following her SMAS diagnosis. Ms. S denies a history of binging or purging. Results from her laboratory workup and all values are within normal limits.

During the initial interview, Ms. S’s mother says they came to the ED because Ms. S urgently needs a psychiatric evaluation so she can be cleared for gastrointestinal (GI) surgery and placement of a nasogastric tube. Her mother says a surgeon from a different hospital told them that her insurance company required a psychiatric evaluation to rule out anorexia nervosa before they would authorize the GI surgery. When asked why psychiatry at this hospital was not consulted, Ms. S’s mother does not answer.

When asked about the symptoms she has been experiencing, Ms. S says that her sleep has been poor because of increased pain and excessive worrying about her health. She has limited her food intake. Ms. S reports that after eating, she lays on her left side to alleviate pain and help the food move through her body.

Continue to: Ms. S says...


Next Article: