Conversion disorder, also known as functional neurological symptom disorder, occurs when a person experiences neurological symptoms (symptoms of the nervous system) not attributable to any medical condition. The symptoms are real and not imaginary, and they can affect motor functions and your senses.

 Researchers have yet to uncover the cause of conversion disorder or functional neurological disorders. It is possible that the symptoms are triggered by physically or psychologically traumatic events or by stress, but not necessarily. A person may be at increased risk of developing the condition if they have a neurological disease, a movement disorder, or a mental health condition. They are also at increased risk if a family member has a functional neurologic disorder or if they’ve experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child or any other trauma in life. Women are also two to three times more likely to receive a diagnosis of conversion disorder than men.

What Are the Symptoms?

 Conversion disorder symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of balance
  • Body tremors
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Hearing difficulty
  • Vision problems or blindness
  • Loss of sensation
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Seizures or shaking episodes
  • Unresponsiveness

To receive a diagnosis of conversion disorder, a person must experience altered motor function or a change in their senses. The symptoms cannot be attributed to any medical condition or other mental illness, and the symptoms must cause distress or impairment in a person’s work, relationships, or other areas of life. Thanks to EEG technology and other neuropsychological tools, conversion disorder has become easier to diagnose in the last decade.

According to the DSM-5, conversion disorder can be diagnosed with symptom specifiers including the following: weakness or paralysis, abnormal movement, swallowing symptoms, speech symptoms, attacks or seizures, anesthesia or sensory loss, or special sensory symptoms. Conversion disorder can also occur as persistent or in the form of an acute episode. Conversion disorder is typically diagnosed by a neurologist or a mental health professional. They may conduct a physical examination as well as a psychiatric examination to determine whether you meet the diagnostic criteria.

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It is common for a person with conversion disorder to also have a co-occurring mental health condition. This might include a mood disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, somatic disorders, and personality disorders. Depression is the most common co-occurring diagnosis for people with conversion disorder who experience non-epileptic seizures.

How is Conversion Disorder Treated?

Effective treatment for conversion disorder treats both the condition and any co-occurring disorders the person is experiencing. Treatment will also be tailored to fit the specific symptoms experienced by the individual. For example, speech therapy may benefit the individual if their symptoms include trouble with speaking or swallowing. Physical or occupational therapy may be required if a person has trouble with mobility, paralysis, or weakness. Behavior therapy that focuses on stress reduction and relaxation techniques can also help reduce symptoms.

Persons with conversion disorder can also benefit from psychotherapy. The type of psychotherapy recommended may differ depending upon any other co-occurring diagnoses. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people identify negative or irrational thought patterns and respond to challenges more effectively. CBT can also help people build better-coping skills for life stressors. If an individual has a history of trauma, they may benefit from other types of therapy as well. Family therapy may also be useful in addressing family dynamics that generate stress and fuel symptoms of conversion disorder.

Hypnosis and self-hypnosis have also proven beneficial for symptom reduction in conversion disorder. This type of treatment may involve focus on on a pleasant image in order to distract or direct thoughts away from the symptoms, which can slow them down or stop them. However, it’s important that these techniques are administered by a professional who specifically helps people with conversion disorder. The effectiveness of self-hypnosis is typically dependent on continuing the practice regularly.

Pharmacotherapy for conversion disorder usually involves medication that treats the symptoms of co-occurring conditions. Research has shown that medications including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta-blockers, analgesics, and benzodiazepines can prove helpful. Antiepileptic drugs are not typically used unless they also help treat the co-occurring diagnosis as well. There is less research about alternative treatments, so be sure to talk to your doctor about the potential risks and benefits.

It’s imperative that there be communication between treatment providers when treating conversion disorder. Neurologists, psychiatrists, and other professionals should communicate regularly to make sure that they are on the same page about the cause and treatment of various symptoms.

 How to Help a Loved One with Conversion Disorder

 If you have a loved one experiencing conversion disorder symptoms, it’s important to believe them and not accuse them of faking their symptoms. These symptoms are very real, even if their origin is not totally understood. Be aware that initially, your loved one may experience frustration and emotional distress when they are told by a neurologist or other professional that their symptoms are not linked to a specific neurological disease or other medical condition. Reassure them that you understand that their symptoms are real and that you’re committed to helping them find the right professionals who can evaluate and treat their condition.

If you think you might have conversion disorder, talk to your primary care provider. Make a list of your symptoms, any personal history that might be relevant, and questions that you have for your doctor. Ask them whether they think a referral to a neurologist is the right next step and whether they recommend any other specialists for a diagnosis. It’s your right to be informed about the latest research and treatment information for your condition, so don’t hesitate to talk your neurologists or other specialists for educational information that can help you make informed decisions about your care. You can also ask them if they can provide any referrals to psychiatrists and mental health professionals who specialize in treating conversion disorder and/or any of your co-occurring diagnoses.

Because conversion disorder is a lesser-known condition, it’s important to be patient when working with healthcare professionals. It might take a couple of appointments and conversations to find the right team of people who are dedicated to helping you manage symptoms. Don’t hesitate to get started today with building the support you need for treating conversion disorder and living your best life.

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Last Updated: Mar 14, 2019