Conversion Disorder

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on July 3, 2017Written by Diana K. Wells

Overview

Conversion disorder is a broad term for when mental or emotional distress causes physical symptoms without the existence of an actual physical condition.

When you have conversion disorder, you’re not able to control your physical response. This response usually involves either your senses or your motor control. In other words, you experience a traumatic or stressful event, and your body responds with tremors, paralysis of an arm or leg, or something similar. There isn’t an underlying physical condition, like an injury, causing the tremors or paralysis. Instead, the physical condition is caused by the stress or emotional trauma.

Symptoms

The symptoms of conversion disorder vary from person to person. These symptoms also vary in severity. The symptoms may occur one time or repeat when the stressor is recalled. They may include:

  • tremors, possibly with limited consciousness
  • paralysis, usually in an arm or leg
  • balance issues
  • weakness or numbness in arms or legs
  • vision problems, such as blindness or double vision
  • swallowing difficulty, which may come from feeling like there’s a lump in your throat
  • slurred speech or an inability to speak
  • partial or total hearing loss

Symptoms of conversion disorder usually start abruptly at the time of a stressful or traumatic event. Most of the time the symptoms will also stop abruptly.

What are the causes?

Conversion disorder is normally caused by some sort of extreme stress, emotional trauma, or depression. It’s your body’s response to something you perceive as a threat.

The physical symptoms may come about as a way to try and resolve or relieve whatever is causing the extreme mental stress. For example, a police officer or soldier who experiences mental trauma from the thought of shooting and possibly killing someone may have paralysis in their hands. The physical symptoms create a way to avoid whatever is causing the stress.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of conversion disorder comes from meeting certain criteria given by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Some of these criteria include:

  • symptoms of movement in your body or sensory symptoms that can’t be controlled
  • symptoms that happen after or in relation to a stressful event or emotional trauma
  • symptoms that can’t be explained medically or physically
  • symptoms that negatively affect your daily life

There aren’t specific tests that diagnose conversion disorder. The tests that are performed are primarily to rule out any medical conditions that may be causing your symptoms. The types of tests your doctor may perform during diagnosis depend on the type of symptoms you’re having. Some tests may include:

  • CT scan, X-rays, or other imaging to rule out possible injuries and neurological conditions
  • electroencephalogram for seizure symptoms to rule out neurological causes
  • routine tests such as checking your blood pressure and reflexes

Conversion disorder can have similar symptoms to a number of other medical conditions. Therefore, it’s important for your doctor to rule out other possible causes before coming to a diagnosis of conversion disorder.

What are the complications of conversion disorder?

The main complication of conversion disorder is a disability caused by the symptoms. This disability can be similar to a disability caused by a medical condition.

Prevention

The primary method of preventing conversion disorder is to find ways to relieve stress and to avoid emotional trauma when possible. Some preventive measures may include:

  • getting treatment for any mental or emotional disorder you may have, including depression
  • maintaining a good work and life balance
  • creating and maintaining positive relationships
  • having a secure and calm family atmosphere

You may be unable to control some of these areas. However, if you work toward controlling the areas you can, you may be able to better manage those you can’t. Any reduction in stress and emotional trauma can be effective in helping to prevent conversion disorder.

Outlook

The symptoms of conversion disorder don’t typically last for more than a few weeks. They may even stop after a day or two. However, it’s important to get treatment as soon as symptoms develop.

You’ll want your doctor to make sure you don’t have a medical condition that is causing the symptoms. If you do have conversion disorder, the earlier you start treatment the better your outcome. With proper treatment, your symptoms will eventually stop occurring or may not reoccur at all.

CMS Id: 124073