Conversion disorder consists of neurologic symptoms or deficits that develop unconsciously and nonvolitionally and usually involve motor or sensory function. The manifestations are incompatible with known pathophysiologic mechanisms or anatomic pathways. Onset, exacerbation, or maintenance of conversion symptoms is commonly attributed to mental factors, such as stress. Diagnosis is based on history after excluding physical disorders as the cause. Treatment begins by establishing a consistent, supportive physician-patient relationship; psychotherapy can help, as may hypnosis.
Conversion disorder tends to develop during late childhood to early adulthood but may occur at any age. It is more common among women.
Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms often develop abruptly, and onset can often be linked to a stressful event. Typically, symptoms involve apparent deficits in voluntary motor or sensory function but sometimes include shaking movements and impaired consciousness (suggesting seizures) and abnormal limb posturing (suggesting another neurologic or general physical disorder). For example, patients may present with impaired coordination or balance, weakness, paralysis of an arm or a leg, loss of sensation in a body part, seizures, unresponsiveness, blindness, double vision, deafness, aphonia, difficulty swallowing, sensation of a lump in the throat, or urinary retention.
The symptoms are severe enough to cause significant distress or impair social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Patients may have a single episode or sporadic repeated ones; symptoms may become chronic. Typically, episodes are brief.
The diagnosis is considered only after a comprehensive medical examination and tests to rule out neurologic or general medical disorders that can fully account for the symptoms and their effects. An important characteristic is that the symptoms and signs are not consistent with neurologic disease. For example, they may not follow anatomic distributions (eg, sensory deficits that involve parts of multiple nerve roots), or findings may vary at different examinations or when assessed in different ways, as in the following:
A consistently trustful and supportive physician-patient relationship is essential. Collaborative treatment that involves a psychiatrist and a physician from another field (eg, neurologist, internist) seems most helpful. After the physician has excluded a general medical disorder and reassured patients that the symptoms do not indicate a serious underlying disorder, patients may begin to feel better, and symptoms may fade.
The following treatments may help:
Any coexisting psychiatric disorders (eg, depression) should be treated.
Last full review/revision November 2013 by Joel E. Dimsdale, MD
Content last modified March 2014