In Munchausen syndrome, the affected person exaggerates or creates symptoms of illnesses in themselves to gain examination, treatment, attention, sympathy, and/or comfort from medical personnel. In some extreme cases, people suffering from Munchausen's syndrome are highly knowledgeable about the practice of medicine and are able to produce symptoms that result in lengthy and costly medical analysis, prolonged hospital stay and unnecessary operations. The role of "patient" is a familiar and comforting one, and it fills a psychological need in people with this syndrome. This disorder is distinct from hypochondriasis and other somatoform disorders in that those with the latter do not intentionally produce their somatic symptoms.
Risk factors for developing Munchausen syndrome include childhood traumas, growing up with parents/caretakers who were emotionally unavailable due to illness or emotional problems, a serious illness as a child, failed aspirations to work in the medical field, personality disorders, and a low self-esteem. Munchausen syndrome is more common in men and seen in young or middle-aged adults. Those with a history of working in healthcare are also at greater risk of developing it.
Arrhythmogenic Munchausen syndrome describes individuals who simulate or stimulate cardiac arrhythmias to gain medical attention. The syndrome differs from malingering, in which a patient fabricates symptoms for an apparent purpose, such as financial compensation, absence from work, or access to drugs.
A similar behavior called Munchausen syndrome by proxy has been documented in the parent or guardian of a child. The adult ensures that his or her child will experience some medical affliction, therefore compelling the child to suffer treatment for a significant portion of their youth in hospitals. Furthermore, a disease may actually be initiated in the child by the parent or guardian. This condition is considered distinct from Munchausen syndrome. There is growing consensus in the pediatric community that this disorder should be renamed "medical abuse" to highlight the harm caused by the deception and to make it less likely that a perpetrator can use a psychiatric defense when harm is done.