Presenting Problem

A presenting problem is the initial symptom for which a person seeks help from a therapist, doctor, psychiatrist, or other provider.

What is a Presenting Problem?
Most people can tolerate a certain amount of physical or psychological discomfort before they seek help for a problem, and tolerance levels vary from person to person. The problem that finally motivates someone to seek professional help can provide valuable information about symptoms as well as possible treatments. For example, a person with anxiety who seeks help only when he/she begins having panic attacks conveys to his/her treatment provider that the panic attacks are the most worrisome problem–in this case, panic attacks are the presenting problem.

Presenting Problems and Diagnoses
A presenting problem is not necessarily the most serious problem, or even the one that will lead to the most accurate diagnosis. In many cases, the presenting problem could indicate a host of different conditions and does not provide enough information to get a correct diagnosis. For this reason, doctors, therapists, and other health professionals typically take an inventory of symptoms to determine if they can find any important clues to help diagnose a patient. For example, when a person goes to the doctor complaining of a rapid heart rate, the doctor might ask about his/her stress level to determine if the problem is a cardiac one or related to anxiety. While this can lead to a more accurate diagnosis, health professionals often take into account the presenting problem when choosing treatment plans. If a patient is most stressed about a rapid heart rate, the doctor might deduce that this is the first symptom that should be treated to help the patient feel better.

Sometimes mental health patients first present with physical problems. This is especially likely if a person is embarrassed about mental health issues or under so much stress that he/she starts experiencing physical symptoms.

References:

  1. Groth-Marnat, G. (2003). Handbook of psychological assessment. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. The presenting problem. (n.d.). Changing Minds. Retrieved from http://changingminds.org/disciplines/coaching/process/presenting_problem.htm

Last Updated: 08-18-2015

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