Category Archives: Psychology

Adverse Childhood Experience

Associated with range of negative outcomes.

Later lifestyle

Adverse childhood experiences increase probability of smoking in adulthood. Physical harm in Eastern European countries increases the probability of heavy drinking by about 3.4%, but not in other regions. Exposure to child neglect (little understanding) increases the probability of alcohol abuse by 2.7% in Nordic Countries but not other macro-regions. The experience of a poor relationship with parents is a strong predictor of alcohol abuse for the female subsample in Latin countries (2% higher).

While ACE does not appear to have a substantial effect on excess weight in any macro-region, childhood trauma (physical harm) appears to have a major impact on the likelihood of being obese later in life. Obesity has a more obvious impact on chronic illness than poverty, smoking or alcohol.

Medically unexplained symptoms

“Persistent physical symptoms” preferred term? Chronic pain overlaps.

“Functional disorder” is used for various gastro and neurological problems, preferred by some adults, but needs explained!

Chronic fatigue syndrome and PANDAS are health disorders that appear to have a physical/scientific cause but disputed.

Health anxiety, malingering, or factitious illness, different from a psychological point of view.

Bleed the symptoms dry! [John Stone, Glasgow].

In a 1965 paper by Eliot Slater, more than half of patients diagnosed as having “hysteria” later turned out to have “organic” disease – but John Stone’s study of adult neurology referrals found very few who turned out to have an occult disease.

Louise Stone in Australia has done a lot of work in primary care. She identifies negative feelings and a lack of diagnostic language and frameworks as barriers to managing these patients effectively. The negative feelings (such as frustration, shame and helplessness), are shared between doctors and patients…

Managing your own feelings and frustrations, and finding ways of understanding and managing the therapeutic relationship important.

Let family feel validated for all concerns – at least in the first instance. Helps develop a therapeutic alliance.

Commit to the patient, which includes advocacy and support.

Family response to symptoms?

Explore beliefs, specific worries (eg cancer). May then allow broadening out to more general worries. 

Manage uncertainty – including managing the need for a disease name! Not having a predictable outcome is hard.

Harm minimisation. Shift from diagnosis to coping with ongoing symptoms.

Good to offer a tentative preamble to difficult conversations! “This is something we as doctors have to deal with every day – signs and symptoms that are very real, with a real impact on a child/family, but where physical examination and investigations do not offer any clues to what the underlying problem might be…”

Paed psychology if issues mostly seem related to child and this is a new problem; CAMHS if new problem adding to existing child/parent issues.  

Can be rewarding in the long term!

[Louise Stone, Aust Fam Physician 2013 Jul;42(7):501-2]


Doesn’t seem to be associated with severity of initial illness.

Long COVID is less common if you are vaccinated already. In a community based study of adults aged 18 to 69 years infected with SARS-CoV-2 before vaccination against covid-19, the odds of experiencing long covid symptoms decreased by an average of 13% after a first covid-19 vaccine dose, with a further 9% decrease in the odds of long covid after a second dose. [

If you already have long COVID, further COVID immunisations seem to be beneficial, rather than harmful:

  • In a non-controlled study of 900 social media users with long COVID, more than half experienced an improvement in symptoms after vaccination compared with 7% who reported a deterioration.19
  • A study of 44 vaccinated patients and 22 unvaccinated controls previously admitted to hospital with covid-19 in the UK, which inevitably had limited power to detect clinically relevant effects, found no evidence for vaccination being associated with worsening of long covid symptoms or quality of life.20
  • A French study of 455 self-selected participants found reduced long COVID symptom burden and double the rate of remission at 120 days in vaccinated participants compared with unvaccinated controls.

All about symptoms, excluding treatable conditions, then self management. For adults:

Chronic pain

Gate theory useful – it’s not just about the stimulus coming to your nerve endings. That signal has to pass through a gate, to register in your brain, and different things affect whether the gate is more or less open or closed.

A feature of many chronic health conditions, eg juvenile idiopathic arthritis, migraine. Often a feature of chronic fatigue syndrome. Can be part of a functional disorder such as functional abdominal pain. In a limb, can lead to reflex sympathetic dystrophy. But often unexplained.

Think about PTSD – it’s all “in your head” but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing. Or phantom limb pain – there isn’t even a true signal coming from the limb, but you still feel pain.

Pain is performative – no one gets credit for trying to cope and hide it. But you can be accuse of “laying it on thick”.

Having a diagnosis helps socially. 

Pain can make you a different person from who you were. Impatience and irritability can be understood, besides an inability to do some activities that might be important to identity (and to relieving stress). Social isolation is common.

Chronic pain also steals any sense of your future because it is too intolerable to imagine more pain. 

Fear needs to be detached from pain. 

Acceptance therapy – not to accept eternity of pain but to focus on progress and function. 

[Haider Warraich podcast with Kate Bowler]

Screen time

Sedentary time spent in front of screens programs metabolism and brain neurochem.  Similar to addiction.

But it’s complicated! Partly because there are so many different kinds of activity that can now be done with mobile phones and tablets, and because it’s difficult to control or randomize.

How people interact with screens is changing too. In the mid-2000s in the US, children over 8 spent an average of 6.43 hours a day on electronic media, but this was mainly watching TV.  Evidence of stress response (reduced cortisol increase) on waking after using screens for average 3 hours a day.

But now mobile devices are the centre piece of young people’s social lives.  Boys tend to spend more time gaming, girls more time on social networking.

Effect of high levels of screen time does not seem to be attenuated by equivalent exercise.

High levels of screen time (over 4 hours daily) is associated with poorer school performance. Social skills are poorer. These children tend to form cliques with shared interest, that create further social isolation.

Violent games and media are associated with aggression in children as young as pre-school. Aggression in children can be manifest physically, or verbally, or relationally (ignoring, excluding, spreading rumours). There is also significantly more hostile attribution bias, where you interpret behaviour (such as not being invited to a party) as hostile, even when it is not, or at least ambiguous.

Parental involvement matters – how frequently parents watch TV with their children, discuss content with them, and set limits on time spent playing video games.

Exposure to media violence must also be seen within a risks/resilience approach. [Gentile and Coyne, Aggressive Behaviour 2010] ]

Some evidence that some “social” games themed around cooperation and construction eg Animal crossing have benefits. Similarly, links between media and relational violence pretty weak, but that could be because relational violence content isn’t really examined! Actual content probably more important than time spent playing. Note that in that study of Animal Crossing, background mental health problems seemed to reduce benefit.

Health anxiety

DSM-5 has “illness anxiety disorder”, defined as preoccupation with the idea that you’re seriously ill, based on normal body sensations (such as a noisy stomach) or minor symptoms (such as a minor rash), to the degree that it gets in the way of normal life. Other features are persistence of such ideas over 6 months, finding little or no reassurance from negative test results or a doctor’s reassurance, repeatedly checking body, avoiding people, places or activities for fear of health risks.

In other words, hypochondriasis. Which gets its name from the idea that such feelings came from liver/spleen/gall bladder (“melancholy” – black bile).  William Cullen, in Edinburgh in the 1790s, appeared to take a particular interest in this.

For the sake of diagnosis, this disorder requires the absence of symptoms, which excludes the large group of people who have similar preoccupation and fears about non-specific or unexplained signs and symptoms.

Health anxiety is therefore a broader concept, and can include anyone who is more desperate for relief from worry, than for relief from actual symptoms.

Cyberchondria = combination of increased pathologisation of society, and ability to browse the internet.  Because provides the opportunity to find very serious, extremely unlikely explanation for problems.

Diagnosis of health anxiety is well accepted by patients if explained respectfully!

[BMJ 2016;353:i2250]


Consider constipation if:

  • episodes of faecal incontinence (stains or smears in pants, potentially larger accidents),
  • retentive posturing (standing or sitting with their legs straight and stiff or crossed legs, some will sit on their own heel),
  • occasional massive but soft stools that virtually obstruct toilet.

Not just hard painful infrequent stools! Beware also dyschezia, where baby appears to strain at stool but not actually hard/large.

In a population-based prospective birth cohort, where dietary types were extracted from questionnaire, adherence to a ‘Western-like’ dietary pattern was associated with a higher prevalence of constipation up to 48 months [aOR 1.39; 1.02-1.87], which was not mediated by overweight or sedentary behaviour. Adherence to a ‘Health Conscious’ dietary pattern was only associated at short term, with a lower prevalence of constipation at 24 months (aOR; 0.65; 0.44-0.96). This suggests that specific dietary patterns in early childhood could be associated with higher or lower risks for constipation, but these effects are time-dependent. [Maternal & Child Nutrition. 9(4):511-23, 2013 PMID: 22288911]

Straining is not a criteria, in NICE, interestingly, although it is in Rome III criteria!

Red flags:

  • multiple anal fissures,
  • gross abdo distension,
  • tenderness with guarding,
  • abnormal lumbosacral or lower limb findings,
  • failure to thrive
  • etc

NICE recommends Movicol (macrogol) as first line, combining with a stimulant (picosulfate, biscodyl, senna) as second line. If macrogol not tolerated, use stimulant +/- softener (lactulose, docusate).

Warn that pain and soiling gets worse before getting better!

Review of adherence and dose important.

Toilet training eg diary, reward system, regular post prandial sitting 5 mins +/- feet on hard surface eg stool.

“Poo should be as soft as toothpaste and should come out like a snake” (Snakes and ladders booklet, Kidney Kids Scotland). Tell your teacher if no toilet paper/soap or broken seat/locks etc.


Typically, episodes of soiling (large and small) are due to overflow of liquid stool past a large impacted stool in the rectum.  The child is unable to control, due to the distortion of the rectum.

However, children often try to deny being aware of soiling, despite the obvious smell or discomfort – this is simply a coping method, and normal sensation is usually easy to demonstrate.

The diagnosis is easier in the presence of a large suprapubic mass, or a rectal mass on digital examination.  Some children however soil for attention, without any bowel or rectal disorder.

The presence or implication of a large rectal mass requires disimpaction – an escalating regimen of a paediatric formulation of macrogol (Laxido or Cosmocol are cheaper than Movicol) as per NICE guideline 99 (doses and licensing may differ from product literature):

  • Child under 1 year: ½-1 sachet daily (non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • Child 1-5 years: 2 sachets on 1st day, then 4 sachets daily for 2 days, then 6 sachets daily for 2 days, then 8 sachets daily (non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • Child 5-12 years: 4 sachets on 1st day, then increased in steps of 2 sachets daily to maximum of 12 sachets daily (non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • If macrogol not tolerated, use stimulant laxative eg picosulfate +/- lactulose

If no progress after 2 weeks add stimulant laxative eg senna, picosulfate, bisacodyl, docusate.

Enemas eg citrate can prevent megarectum where prolonged medical treatment fails.

Polyethylene glycol licensed for distal intestinal obstruction!?


I suggest half disimpaction dose for maintenance.

Preferred treatment is paediatric formulation of macrogol (Laxido or Cosmocol are cheaper than Movicol) as per NICE guideline 99 (doses and licensing may differ from product literature).

  • Child under 1 year: ½–1 sachet daily (non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • Child 1–6 years: 1 sachet daily; adjust dose to produce regular soft stools (maximum 4 sachets daily) (for children under 2, non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • Child 6–12 years: 2 sachets daily; adjust dose to produce regular soft stools (maximum 4 sachets daily)
  • If macrogol not tolerated, use a stimulant laxative eg sodium picosulfate (5mg/5ml, NICE recommended doses):
    • Child 1 month to 4 years: 2.5–10 mg once a day
    • Child/young person 4–18 years: 2.5–20 mg once a day
    • Add lactulose or docusate if stools hard

.At least 3/12 of maintenance before weaning if disimpaction required initially.

I always highlight that laxative use does not induce dependency, rather, that chronic constipation is unlikely to improve without adequate treatment.

Review regularly – symptoms, toileting, taking medication.

Continue maintenance treatment until regular bowel habit established for at least a few weeks or until toilet trained. Do not stop dose abruptly.

General advice re balanced diet including fruit, vegetables, high-fibre bread/breakfast cereals, baked beans, regular toileting, exercise, sufficient fluid intake (1000-1400ml age 4-8yrs, 1200–2100ml age 9–13yrs).

Involve Health Visitor in pre-school group.

Consider trial of milk exclusion (to rule out cow’s milk protein allergy if intractable (ESPGHAN 2023).   Coeliac disease, hypothyroidism, cystic fibrosis, Hirschsprung’s disease and hypercalcaemia also come into the differential.


Rectal biopsy indicated if delayed meconium at birth (ie >48hrs), Downs, enterocolitic episodes.

Anal fissures have high spontaneous healing rate with medical treatment.

Manual evacuation under GA may be required if resistant. No benefit on RCT for anal dilatation. Small RCT found botox as good as internal sphincter myectomy for refractory constipation.

Appendicostomy or caecostomy antegrade colonic enema (where bowel irrigated using catheter) has a role in refractory cases after age 6yrs. QOL, continence improve but appreciable morbidity.

Relapses more common in boys, under age 4, background of psychosocial or behavioural probs, encopresis. 1/3 of post pubertal children continue to have severe problems.  See also parenting and constipation.

Parent information

ERIC website –

[NICE clinical guideline 99 – constipation in children and young people (Published 2010)]

[BMJ 2012]

Chronic fatigue syndrome

NICE update 2021 a bit depressing:

  • Therapy based on physical exercise should NOT be offered “as a cure”, nor should graded exercise programmes (which by definition use fixed increments in exercise) be used!
  • Instead, self management, flexible and tailored
  • CBT should only be offered to manage symptoms, improve functioning and reduce distress.
  • Talks about “energy management” – includes emotional, social, cognitive.
  • “Care and support plan” – physical activity including mobility but also activities of daily living.  Plan periods of rest and activity, and incorporate the need for pre-emptive rest.  Management of relapses and flares.

Main thrust of update is that CFS/ME is a complex, chronic medical condition affecting multiple body systems and its pathophysiology is still being investigated. It affects everyone differently and its impact varies widely – for some people symptoms still allow them to carry out some activities, whereas for others they cause substantial incapacity.  It is a fluctuating condition in which a person’s symptoms can change unpredictably in nature and severity over a day, week or longer.

Often it profoundly affects different aspects of the lives of both people with ME/CFS and their families/carers including social life, emotional wellbeing and education.

Another big theme is prejudice, disbelief and stigma experienced by patients.

US IOM expert panel have rejected the name “chronic fatigue syndrome”, as patients hate it!  Myalgic encephalitis (ME) also rejected on basis of insufficient evidence that this is the pathological process.  They suggest “Systemic exertion intolerance”, which is probably even more rubbish, in my opinion.

Diagnostic criteria: all of the following 3 [BMJ 2015; 350]

  1. Substantial reduction/impairment in pre-illness levels of activity, that persists for more than six months [NICE 2007 says 3/12 for children], and accompanied by fatigue (often profound, new or definite onset, not the result of ongoing excessive exertion and not substantially alleviated by rest)

  2. Worsening of symptoms after any type of exertion (including cognitive and emotional stress) – “post-exertional malaise

  3. Unrefreshing sleep, and/or sleep disturbance.

In addition, should have at least one of:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Orthostatic intolerance.

Doesn’t mention chronic pain?! NICE says reconsider diagnosis in absence of cognitive difficulties or chronic pain.


Evidence (reproducible) implicating certain infections as a trigger. Co-existing mood disorder in substantial proportion of patients, sometimes sleep-wake disorder – likely to perpetuate/exacerbate.

Brain imaging has identified alternations suggesting that it is a brain problem.


[NICE 2007]

  • Urinalysis
  • FBC, LFTs
  • TFTs
  • Coeliac disease screening
  • CK
  • Glucose
  • Ferritin

NOT microbiology unless indicated: borrelia, HIV, Hepatitis viruses, EBV, CMV, toxoplasmosis



Cochrane review of graded exercise therapy – may benefit sleep, physical function, self-perceived general health, and no evidence that it worsens outcomes. Curiously, no evidence for loss of aerobic fitness! Perhaps graded exercise tackles a hyper-reactive CNS response to exercise-related physiological signals. Note that fear of physical activity becomes conditioned when it commonly exacerbates symptoms.

Warn that exercise programmes can make things worse rather than better. Exercise should only be done as part of supervised programme, with physiotherapist – don’t just tell them to go the gym more! Start below baseline activity level.


Relaxation techniques recommended by NICE.

CBT – should only be offered to manage symptoms, improve functioning and reduce distress.  Again, not a “cure”. Analysis of both CBT and graded exercise suggests that benefit comes from reducing inactivity.

Sleep hygiene important.  Include rest periods in plan but avoid day time naps, especially since sleep doesn’t usually help anyway!

Many people find exclusion diets useful, esp bowel symptoms, not recommended but involve dietician if attempted anyway.

Equipment to maintain independence can improve quality of life and should be part of overall management.

Beware boom-bust! Many patients over do it when they have a period of relative wellness. Flares and relapses are to be expected.  Trigger? New medical problem? Adjust plan as necessary.

Pain and orthostatic intolerance are big issues for some people.

Severe CFS can increase risk of pressure ulcers, DVT, vitamin D deficiency and contractures.


Important to be honest at time of diagnosis.  More optimistic in young people.  Most adults improve, some are able to return to usual activities but others experience long term symptoms or relapse.

PACE trial aimed for less than full restoration of health as “recovery”, future trials should use clinically relevant improvement and patient self-perception.

[bmj 2015;350:h2087]

[NICE 2021

2010 Scottish Good Practice statement needs update.

Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder

ADHD defined as at least 6 months of

  • Inattention,
  • Hyperactivity,
  • Impulsivity.

ICD requires all 3, DSM requires just 1.


  • social and/or academic difficulties not explained by anxiety or depression,
  • child should be under 7 yrs.

DSM does not give guidance on assessing severity. UK guidelines do not mention mild ADHD.

Commonly associated with peer rejection, increased risk of injury. Long term, less likely to enter higher education or find employment, more likely to have delinquent/criminal behaviour, more likely to smoke, use alcohol and illegal drugs.

There is high concordance for monozygotic twins, which supports a genetic cause. There are also MRI/PET lesions, which support a physical cause (cortical abnormalities in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes, Lancet 2003). It is 3 times more common in boys. It may be related to traumatic experience in infancy.

There are rating scales eg Conner’s ADHD index, which is 94% sensitive.

Examples of inattention:

  • Careless mistakes
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Does not follow through instructions (NOT simply oppositional)
  • Avoids sustained mental effort
  • Loses things necessary for tasks/activites

Examples of hyperactivity/impulsivity:

  • Fidgets, squirms, leaves seat when expected to remain
  • Runs about, climbs in appropriate situations
  • Acts as if “driven by a motor”
  • Blurts out answers before question finished
  • Interrupts, intrudes on others

There should be impairments in at least 2 settings eg school and home.


Parent training programmes are effective for preschool children.

Methylphenidate, a dopamine agonist, is effective, esp for concentration, hyperkinesis and impulsiveness. Clonidine has been suggested.

Behaviour modification (NOT cognitive behavioural) is effective for age 6yr+ only when combined with medication.

Hyperactivity tends to improve over time, but there are associated antisocial behaviours and learning difficulties long term. The longest trial showed better performance up to 8yrs after entry (compared with baseline), but still underperforming compared with peers.

A diagnosis can help parents but also carries stigma: children with ADHD are perceived as lazier and less clever by peers, and teachers/parents have lower academic expectations.

BMJ 2013;347:18a