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Conversion Disorder

Definition

Conversion disorder is a neurological/psychiatric disorder. It is one of a group of psychological disorders called somatoform disorders.

Conversion disorder can be difficult to diagnose, but it is treatable.

Causes    TOP

The direct cause of conversion disorder is usually experiencing a very stressful or traumatic event. The disorder can be considered the way someone copes, or as a psychological expression of the event. An example of this is a person who loses his voice following a situation in which he was afraid to speak.

Risk Factors    TOP

Conversion disorder is more common in women and adolescents. Other factors that may increase the risk of conversion disorder include:

  • A previous history of personality or psychological disease
  • Physical or sexual abuse, particularly in children
  • Economic difficulties
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Family members with either conversion disorder or chronic illness
  • Co-existing psychiatric conditions such as depression or anxiety
  • Co-existing personality disorders

Symptoms    TOP

It is important to understand that person affected is not consciously acting out or pretending. Symptoms of conversion disorder are real, but lack a connection to any known organic medical diagnoses. Conversion disorder may cause:

  • Impaired coordination and balance
  • Paralysis of an arm or leg
  • Loss of sensation in a part of the body
  • Loss of a sense, such as blindness or deafness
  • Inability to speak
  • Difficulty swallowing or a sensation of a lump in the throat
  • Sensory symptoms, such as;
    • Loss of sense of pain
    • Tingling or crawling sensations
  • Seizures

Nervous System

Nervous system posterior 3D
An emotional event may trigger physical symptoms.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

To be diagnosed with conversion disorder you must have at least 1 symptom, but you may also have many. The appearance of symptoms is linked to the stressful event and typically occur suddenly.

Diagnosis    TOP

Diagnosis of conversion disorder may be difficult. Physical causes for your symptoms will be considered first. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.

The electrical activity in your body may be tested. This can be done with:

Images of internal body structures may be taken with:

If no physical cause is detected, the patient may either be referred to a neurologist or a psychiatrist for a consultation.

Treatment    TOP

Psychological disorders can carry a feeling of being stigmatized. It is important that you do not let this prevent you from seeking treatment.

In some cases, conversion disorder goes away on its own. Treatment consists of counseling and psychotherapy (especially cognitive behavioral therapy). It may also involve identifying and removing environmental triggers to decrease anything stimulating the conversion disorder.

If underlying anxiety or depression is also occurring, medications may be used to help treat those conditions.

It is important to be consistent with treatment to help prevent a recurrence of the disorder.

Physical and/or Occupational Therapy

Therapy may be needed to overcome disuse/paralysis of a limb and to relearn normal behaviors.

Prevention    TOP

Conversion disorder can't be prevented because it occurs after a specific, traumatic event.

RESOURCES:

American Psychological Association
http://www.apa.org
American Psychiatric Association
http://www.psychiatry.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Psychiatric Association
http://www.cpa-apc.org
Canadian Psychological Association
http://www.cpa.ca

References:

Conversion disorder. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/psychiatric-disorders/somatic-symptom-and-related-disorders/conversion-disorder. Updated November 2013. Accessed June 15, 2016.
Conversion disorder. National Organization for Rare Disorders website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Published 2003. Accessed June 15, 2016.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 5/23/2014

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