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.
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.
Conversion disorder is more common in women and adolescents. Other factors that may increase the chance 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, such as histrionic, passive-dependent, or passive-aggressive personality disorder
It is important to understand that the symptoms of conversion disorder are involuntary. The 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
To be diagnosed with conversion disorder you must have at least one symptom, but you may also have many. The appearance of symptoms is linked to the stressful event and typically occur suddenly.
Diagnosis of conversion disorder may be difficult. It is important for your doctor to carefully consider any physical causes for your symptoms. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Tests may include:
- Blood tests
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) to evaluate electrical activity in the brain
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) to evaluate electrical activity in the heart
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 for a psychiatric consultation.
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 occuring, 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.
Conversion disorder can't be prevented because it occurs after a specific, traumatic event.
American Psychological Association
Psych—American Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Conversion disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 3, 2010. Accessed July 22, 2013.
Conversion disorder. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/psychiatric-disorders/somatic-symptom-and-related-disorders/conversion-disorder. Updated February 2012. Accessed July 22, 2013.
Last reviewed June 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.