By the time Cora W. was eight years old, she took six different medicines everyday. She saw eleven different doctors to monitor her conditions. And she slept every night attached to a machine to monitor her breathing. But, when she was admitted to the hospital, doctors could not find anything wrong with her.
Cora was healthy, but she was an unfortunate victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a serious situation. But, contrary to popular belief, it is not a mental health disorder. Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a form of physical or emotional abuse. This can prove serious or even fatal to children.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy is named after Munchausen syndrome. This is a mental disorder where a person complains of fake symptoms or an illness in himself or herself to gain attention in the patient role. But, with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the perpetrator (eg, a parent or caretaker) creates false medical problems in a child. The victims are usually preschool-age children who cannot speak up for themselves. This disorder can become dangerous because the child can be seriously injured or even killed. Perpetrators (most commonly mothers) lie, exaggerate, or even cause symptoms in the victim, usually their own child.
For example, one mother gave her daughter a substance to cause asthma attacks. Other perpetrators have given medicines that cause vomiting or seizures. These people may also willingly allow a child to undergo risky surgeries to treat false conditions. If confronted by a doctor, the perpetrators deny any wrongdoing. However, the child gets better when the perpetrator is not around.
Commonly, these mothers will receive sympathy from friends and family. Sometimes, church groups or community groups praise these mothers for their selfless duty to their sick child. Of course, to keep the praise coming, the lies must continue. Thus, the children suffer.
Treatment usually involves removal of the child from the perpetrator. This is followed by intensive individual and family therapy. While eventually reuniting the child and family is always a goal, treatment of abusing parents may not be successful. The perpetrator may have to give up parental rights.
While Cora W. thrived in the hospital, her mother could not accept this. Cora was later sent to foster care. She returned to school, made new friends, and stayed healthy, requiring only routine follow-up with a doctor.
Mental Health America
National Library of Medicine
About Kids Health
Mental Health Canada
McCoy, K; Stahl, RJ. Factitious Disorder. EBSCO Patient Education Reference Center website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/pointofcare . Updated September 1, 2011. Accessed July 10, 2012.
Munchausen syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 8, 2010. Accessed July 10, 2012.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed . Updated July 19, 2010. Accessed July 10, 2012.
Munchausen by proxy syndrome. Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/sick/munchausen.html . Updated March 2012. Accessed July 10, 2012.
Last reviewed July 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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