Somatization and functional somatic symptoms reflect conditions in which physical symptoms are not sufficiently explained by medical conditions. Literature suggests that these somatic symptoms may be related to illness exposure in the family. Children with a parent or sibling with a chronic illness may be particularly vulnerable to developing somatic symptoms. This study provides a systematic review of the literature on somatic symptoms in children with a chronically ill family member.
A systematic review (PROSPERO registry ID: CRD42018092344) was conducted using six databases (PubMed, EMBASE, PsychINFO, Scopus, CINAHL, and Cochrane) from articles published before April 5, 2018. All authors evaluated articles by title and abstract, and then by full-text review. Relevant data were extracted by the first author and reviewed by remaining authors.
Twenty-seven unique studies met the criteria. Seventeen examined somatic symptoms in children with a chronically ill parent, and seven evaluated somatic symptoms in children with a chronically ill sibling. Three studies examined somatic symptoms in children with an unspecified ill relative. The strongest relationship between child somatization and familial illness was found with children with a chronically ill parent (13/17 studies). Evidence for somatic symptoms in children with an ill sibling was mixed (4/7 studies found a positive association).
The literature on somatic symptoms in children suggests that parental illness is related to increased somatic symptoms in children. Research examining the effects of having a sibling with an illness on somatic symptoms is mixed. Several areas of future research are outlined to further clarify the relationship between familial chronic illness and somatic symptoms.