Conversion Disorder

What Is Conversion Disorder?

A conversion disorder, also called functional neurologic disorder, is a medical condition in which the patient loses the use of some part of his or her body without an apparent physiological reason. These losses typically affect either physical mobility or the senses (sight, hearing, etc.). Conversion disorder is often, though not always, triggered by stressful events or life situations. At one time, it was thought to be a purely psychological condition but scientists increasingly believe that it has an unspecified neurological component as well. Conversion disorder is more common in women than men, and most frequently occurs in young adulthood.

If you or a loved one is displaying conversion-disorder symptoms, the psychiatric and other specialists at Baptist Health may be able to help.

What Are Conversion Disorder Symptoms?

Conversion disorder symptoms vary greatly by patient. Common to the condition are:

  • Limb paralysis
  • Difficulties walking
  • Loss of coordination
  • Balance issues
  • Double vision or blindness
  • Deafness
  • Loss of smell, taste, or touch
  • Slurred or garbled speech
  • Light sensitivity
  • Headaches or chronic pain
  • Numbness
  • Spasms
  • Blackouts
  • Hallucinations
  • Insomnia and sleep problems

Left untreated, conversion disorder can result in long-term disability and a much reduced quality of life.

What Causes Conversion Disorder?

The cause or causes of conversion disorder are unknown. In fact, one of the criteria for diagnosing this condition is the identification of physiological dysfunction without an apparent source. The origin of symptoms may lie in a so-far undetected communication breakdown between the brain and the nerves, while the timing of symptoms often appears linked to stressful life events.

Researchers have isolated several factors that increase the probability of developing this condition:

  • Undergoing traumatic experiences or periods of high stress
  • Having a neurological disorder, such as epilepsy
  • Being closely related to someone with a neurological disorder
  • Having a psychological disorder, such as depression or anxiety

How Is Conversion Disorder Diagnosed?

There is no formalized means of diagnosing a conversion disorder. Rather, your physician will document symptoms and eliminate other possible explanations for their occurrence. A neurological dysfunction without a physiological basis is categorized as a conversion disorder.

Steps taken to eliminate alternative diagnoses include:

  • Symptoms documentation: Your physician will want a complete list of symptoms, which can be obtained during a detailed question-and-answer session.
  • Family medical history: Because of the prevalence of neurological conditions in some families, your physician will want to know your medical history.
  • Physical exam: A physical exam is important as a means of ruling out an underlying physical or medical cause of your condition. This may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or electroencephalographic (EEG) scans of the brain.
  • Psychological evaluation: You might be asked to fill out a questionnaire with the purpose of documenting evidence for a conversion disorder. Your physician or mental-health provider can use this information, in conjunction with the criteria published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to make his or her diagnosis.

The DSM-5 criteria include mobility or sensory dysfunction, no apparent physiological explanation for that dysfunction, and symptoms severe enough to create difficulties for the patient, causing him or her to seek medical attention.

How Is Conversion Disorder Treated?

Treating conversion disorders often involves a multipronged approach:

  • Medical understanding: An important first step in dealing with conversion disorder is understanding that your symptoms are real and not just “all in your mind.” The growing emphasis that medical science is placing on the condition’s neurological basis can be helpful in this regard.
  • Psychotherapy: Though conversion disorder has neurological roots, its psychological characteristics shouldn’t be overlooked. A variety of mental-health treatments have been deployed in addressing conversion disorder, including cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, and techniques for relieving stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Other types of therapy: For individuals experiencing loss of movement or coordination, physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy can be effective means of learning old skills anew.
  • Medications: There are no medications specifically recommended for conversion disorder, but antidepressants are sometimes prescribed to help patients deal with related conditions, such as depression. 

The outlook for persons with conversion disorder is generally positive. Understanding and treatment are often beneficial in addressing symptoms, which sometimes disappear as suddenly as they first appeared. Reoccurrence has been documented in about one case out of four. 

Can Conversion Disorder be Prevented?

There is no sure means of preventing a conversion disorder but finding ways to manage stress can limit its likelihood. Regular exercise, yoga, and meditation are three healthy ways of coping with the worries of daily living.  

Learn More About Conversion Disorder from Baptist Health

A conversion disorder can be a difficult thing to face. Just remember: the caring providers at Baptist Health are on your side. If you’re looking for treatment options or more information about conversion disorders, please contact a behavioral health or other provider with Baptist Health today.

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