Conversion disorder: What you need to know
While the exact cause of conversion disorder is unknown, researchers believe it occurs in response to stressful situations or trauma.
In this article, learn about the common symptoms and treatment, as well as when to see a doctor.
What is conversion disorder?
Triggers for conversion disorder may include stressful events, emotional trauma, and physical trauma.
It is thought that conversion disorder is a physical response to mental, physical or psychological trauma. It is sometimes referred to as functional neurologic disorder.
Symptoms include shaking, paralysis, or double vision. One example is feeling uncontrollably shaky after a traumatic event, such as witnessing a car crash, even if there is no physical reason to be shaking.
Triggers are typically:
- stressful events
- emotional or physical trauma
- changes in brain function at the structural, cellular, or metabolic level
Conversion disorder may also occur when there is no clear trigger.
The exact cause, however, varies from person to person. While researchers have speculated that the cause is related to stressful events, the precise medical reason is still unknown.
Some of the symptoms of conversion disorder typically include:
- paralysis of the arms or legs
- loss of balance
- seizures, sometimes with limited consciousness
- episodes of unresponsiveness
- difficulty swallowing
- a feeling of a lump in the throat
- shakes and tremors
- difficulty walking
- slurred speech or loss of speaking ability
- difficulty hearing or loss of hearing
- double vision, blurred vision, or episodes of blindness
- numbness or loss of the touch sensation
Symptoms of conversion disorder vary between individuals and on the type of neuralgic disorder a person has.
Symptoms can be mild or severe, may stop and start or be continuous, and usually affect the body's ability to function correctly.
Other medical conditions may need to be ruled out, so a doctor may recommended a CT scan.
A doctor will diagnose conversion disorder using criteria defined by the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). These criteria include:
- loss of control of movement or sensory symptoms
- symptoms occurring after a traumatic or stressful event
- symptoms that do not appear to have an underlying medical or physical cause
- symptoms that interrupt a person's everyday activities
A doctor may also suggest some other tests to rule out other medical conditions. These tests include:
- computed tomography (CT) scans
- electroencephalograms (EEG), which record brain activity and can help rule out neurological causes of seizures
- blood pressure and reflex tests
Once diagnosed, there is a variety of ways to treat conversion disorder.
Anyone experiencing symptoms of conversion disorder should seek immediate medical attention, as the symptoms may be caused by an underlying medical condition.
The first line of treatment is to try to identify the underlying cause. Once a person knows what the cause is, they can work on coping mechanisms and other solutions to relieve stress and emotional trauma as much as possible. Alleviating the triggers should, in turn, reduce the physical symptoms.
Suggested treatments for conversion disorder may include:
- treating any underlying mental health conditions, such as depression
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga
- physical therapy
- maintaining a healthy work and life balance
- seeking additional support from friends, family, and the community
The symptoms of conversion disorder can be very distressing and may have an enormous impact on a person's wellbeing. Symptoms may prohibit them from carrying out everyday activities.
Certain symptoms, such as seizures or temporary paralysis, may increase a person's risk of permanent disability.
A person may experience problems at work and in relationships and may feel they have a reduced quality of life. It is, therefore, crucial to seek a diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible.
The symptoms of conversion disorder usually resolve with treatment and time. Delaying diagnosis and treatment could lead to more persistent symptoms and further complications.
With treatment, it is possible to reduce and manage the symptoms of conversion disorder.