What Is Conversion Disorder?

Reviewed on 12/18/2020
Conversion disorder is a medical condition in which an individual exhibits psychological stress in physical ways.
Conversion disorder is a medical condition in which an individual exhibits psychological stress in physical ways.

Conversion disorder is a medical condition in which an individual exhibits psychological stress in physical ways. Therefore, after a stressful event or traumatic event, which could be recent or in the past, an individual suddenly starts having symptoms such as convulsions or “spells.” For example, a person met with a car accident and is not unharmed physically, but in later stages, their arm becomes paralyzed due to the traumatic event; this is considered a conversion disorder. It is also called functional neurological symptom disorder or hysteria.

Causes and risk factors:

  • Causes of conversion disorder are unknown, but physicians believe it may be related to the patient’s brain responses to stress. It’s almost always triggered by upsetting situations and other mental disorders.
  • Women are more likely to have it than men. It also happens more often to people who have a history of emotional stress or who have a hard time talking about their feelings.
  • Having a neurological disease or disorder, such as epilepsy, migraines, or a movement disorder
  • Having a mental health condition, such as a mood or anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, or certain personality disorders
  • Having a family member with a functional neurological disorder
  • Possibly, having a history of physical or sexual abuse or neglect in childhood

Signs and symptoms: A physical ailment with no physical cause is the biggest sign of conversion disorder. Other signs and symptoms of the disorder include:

Diagnosis: The process of diagnosing conversion disorder can include various medical tests to rule out any medical conditions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has certain criteria for diagnosing conversion disorder. These include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Symptoms that impede a person’s daily life
  • Symptoms with no underlying medical or physical cause
  • Sensory symptoms
  • Symptoms that transpire after a stressful or traumatic experience

Obtaining the proper diagnosis, especially when it comes to adolescent mental health disorders, is critical for one’s recovery process.

Treatment: Symptoms of conversion disorder get better without treatment, especially after reassurance from the doctor that their symptoms aren't caused by a serious underlying problem, and after referral to a mental health professional. Treatment may depend on your particular signs and symptoms:

  • Counseling (psychotherapy): Seeing a psychologist or professional counselor can help treat symptoms of conversion disorder and prevent it from coming back. This can be especially helpful if a person also has anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.
  • Physical therapy: Working with a physical therapist may prevent complications of certain symptoms of conversion disorder. For example, regular movement of the arms or legs may ward off muscle tightness and weakness if they have paralysis or loss of mobility.
  • Treating related stress and other conditions: Conversion disorder may improve when the patient is treated for stress, anxiety, or another underlying problem. The doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, or other drugs as part of the treatment plan, depending on the individual health profile.
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation: Some reports show that people with conversion disorder may benefit from this type of treatment, which involves exciting brain activity by using weak electrical currents that are said to alter the brain's biochemistry. However, this approach is still in an early stage regarding its use in the management of conversion disorder.

What is the outlook of the patients with conversion disorder?

The outlook of conversation disorder depends on signs and symptoms and may last for a few days to several weeks. Most of the time, they are not life-threatening. However, they can have lasting effects on quality of life if not treated. The best way to prevent conversion disorder is to find good ways to manage life’s stresses in a healthy manner. Exercise and calming activities such as yoga and meditation may help.

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Marshall SA. Conversion Disorders. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/287464-overview

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