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A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2013.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Conversion disorder

Hysterical neurosis

Last reviewed: November 17, 2012.

Conversion disorder is a mental health condition in which a person has blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Conversion disorder symptoms may occur because of a psychological conflict.

Symptoms usually begin suddenly after a stressful experience. People are at risk of conversion disorder if they also have a medical illness, or the other mental health problem of dissociative disorder (escape from reality that is not on purpose) or a personality disorder (inability to manage feelings and behaviors that are expected in certain social situations).

Persons who have conversion disorder are not making up their symptoms (malingering). Some doctors falsely believe that this disorder is not a real condition and may tell patients the problem is all in their head. But this condition is real. It causes distress and cannot be turned on and off at will.

The physical symptoms are thought to be an attempt to resolve the conflict the person feels inside. For example, a woman who believes it is not acceptable to have violent feelings may suddenly feel numbness in her arms after becoming so angry that she wanted to hit someone. Instead of allowing herself to have violent thoughts about hitting someone, she experiences the physical symptom of numbness in her arms.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a conversion disorder include the loss of one or more bodily functions, such as:

  • Blindness
  • Inability to speak
  • Numbness
  • Paralysis

Common signs of conversion disorder include:

  • A debilitating symptom that begins suddenly
  • History of a psychological problem that gets better after the symptom appears
  • Lack of concern that usually occurs with a severe symptom

Signs and tests

Diagnostic testing does not find any physical cause for the symptoms.

The doctor will do a physical exam and may order diagnostic tests. These are to make sure there are no physical causes for the symptom.

Treatment

Talk therapy and stress management training may help reduce symptoms.

The affected body part or physical function will need physical or occupational therapy until the symptoms go away. For example, a paralyzed arm must be exercised to keep the muscles strong.

Expectations (prognosis)

Symptoms usually last for days to weeks and may suddenly go away. Usually the symptom itself is not life threatening, but complications can be debilitating.

Calling your health care provider

See your health care provider or mental health professional if you or someone you know has symptoms of a conversion disorder.

References

  1. Blais MA, Smallwood P, Groves JE, Rivas-Vazquez RA. Personality and personality disorders. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, Biederman J, Rauch SL, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2008:chap 39.

Review Date: 11/17/2012.

Reviewed by: Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.

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Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Psychosocial interventions for conversion disorderPsychosocial interventions for conversion disorder
    Conversion disorder is an alteration or loss of physical functioning suggestive of a physical disorder that is thought to be due to a psychological stressor or conflict. Psychosocial interventions are thought to be helpful for people with conversion disorder. We conducted a review of all relevant randomised trials of psychosocial interventions, but were only able to include three small studies. There were no conclusive results and at present, the benefits or harms of psychosocial interventions for conversion disorder are unclear.
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