Mental Disorder Image Gallery
Mental Disorder Image Gallery

People with Munchausen syndrome often make themselves or their child sick.

George Doyle/Getty Images

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Being sick is something most people try to avoid. A small percentage of people, however, relish the thought of going to the doctor, undergoing

tests -- even having painful surgery. Though they know they aren't really sick, people with Munchausen syndrome pretend to be ill because they're seeking attention and sympathy.

Munchausen syndrome is a strange -- but very real -- mental health condition. It's the most severe type of factitious disorder, a group of conditions in which people purposely exaggerate, invent or even cause disease symptoms.

It's hard to know exactly how many people have Munchausen syndrome because most are so adept at hiding their behavior. Some people even adopt aliases or travel to different areas to avoid detection.

In 1951, British physician Richard Asher first described the condition in the medical journal The Lancet. He named it after Baron von Munchausen, an 18th-century German military officer who told highly exaggerated tales about his life.

Munchausen syndrome isn't the same thing as hypochondria, a condition in which people really believe that they are sick. Those with Munchausen know that they are healthy, but they want to be sick. It's also different than malingering, in which people pretend to be sick for financial gain (such as to win a lawsuit) or to get out of work.

In this article, we'll look into the mysteries of Munchausen syndrome, as well as the related Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and find out why anyone would want to hurt themselves -- or another person -- just to get attention.