A culture-specific syndrome is characterized by:
Some culture-specific syndromes involve somatic symptoms (pain or disturbed function of a body part), while others are purely behavioral. Some culture-bound syndromes appear with similar features in several cultures, but with locally-specific traits, such as penis panics.
A culture-specific syndrome is not the same as a geographically localized disease with specific, identifiable, causal tissue abnormalities, such as kuru or sleeping sickness, or genetic conditions limited to certain populations. It is possible that a condition originally assumed to be a culture-bound behavioral syndrome is found to have a biological cause; from a medical perspective it would then be redefined into another nosological category.
The American Psychiatric Association states that: "The term culture-bound syndrome denotes recurrent, locality-specific patterns of aberrant behavior and troubling experience that may or may not be linked to a particular DSM-IV diagnostic category. Many of these patterns are indigenously considered to be 'illnesses', or at least afflictions, and most have local names. Although presentations conforming to the major DSM-IV categories can be found throughout the world, the particular symptoms, course, and social response are very often influenced by local cultural factors. In contrast, culture-bound syndromes are generally limited to specific societies or culture areas and are localized, folk, diagnostic categories that frame coherent meanings for certain repetitive, patterned, and troubling sets of experiences and observations" (American Psychiatric Association, 1994:844).
Medical care of the condition is challenging and illustrates a truly fundamental but rarely discussed aspect of the physician-patient relationship: the need to negotiate a diagnosis that fits the way of looking at the body and its diseases of both parties. The physician may
The problem with choice 1 is that a physician who prides themselves on their knowledge of disease likes to think they know the difference between culture-specific disorders and "organic" diseases. While choice 2 may be the quickest and most comfortable choice, the physician must deliberately deceive the patient. Currently in Western culture this is considered one of the most unethical things a physician can do, whereas in other times and cultures deception with benevolent intent has been an accepted tool of treatment. Choice 3 is the most difficult and time-consuming to do without leaving the patient disappointed, insulted, or lacking confidence in the physician, and may leave both physician and patient haunted by doubts ("maybe the condition is real" or "maybe this doctor doesn't know what s/he is talking about").
The term culture-bound syndrome has, in many ways, been a controversial topic since it has reflected the different opinions of anthropologists and psychiatrists. Anthropologists have a tendency to emphazise the relativistic and culture-specific dimensions of the syndromes, while physicians tend to emphazise the universal and neuropsychological dimensions (Prince, 2000; Jilek, 2001). Guarnaccia & Rogler (1999) have argued in favor of investigating culture-bound syndromes on their own terms, and believe that the syndromes have enough cultural integrity to be treated as independent objects of research.