Conversion Disorder

Imagine taking a hard fall off your bike and then not being able to move your arm — but your arm isn’t injured. Neither is any other part of your body. Is the paralysis all in your head? It might be. You could have what’s called conversion disorder. It’s a neurological condition that causes physical symptoms — like a paralysed arm — even though doctors can’t find any injury or other physical condition to explain them. In other words, your body converted your emotional and psychological stress from falling off your bike into the physical response of your paralysed arm. It might seem strange, but your symptoms are real, and you can’t control them.

What Causes It?

While the specific cause of conversion disorder is still being studied, researchers think it develops as a way for your brain to deal with emotional strife. It’s almost always triggered by stressful situations and other mental disorders. And the symptoms usually develop suddenly. Women are more likely to have it than men. It also happens more often to people with a history of emotional trauma, and in those who have a hard time talking about their feelings. Sometimes, physical symptoms might help resolve some sort of internal conflict. For example, if you’re struggling with the desire to hurt someone, conversion disorder may cause you to develop paralysis, making it impossible to act on that desire.

What Are the Symptoms?

Conversion disorder symptoms most commonly look like issues involving your nervous system (brain, spinal cord, or other nerves). These include:

  • Uncontrollable movements
  • Tunnel vision or blindness
  • Loss of smell or speech
  • Numbness or paralysis

How Is It Diagnosed?

There’s no test to diagnose conversion disorder. And because the cause is unknown, it’s usually diagnosed by the process of elimination. When tests rule out other physical, mental, or neurological causes, your doctor may ask you if you’ve experienced any recent traumatic events. For your doctor to diagnose you with conversion disorder, your symptoms must meet the standards set by the American Psychiatric Association:

  • They affect your movement or senses, and you can’t control them.
  • They can be related to a stressful event, but don’t have to be.
  • You’re not faking them.
  • They can’t be explained by any other condition, medication, or behaviour.
  • They cause you stress in social and work settings.
  • They aren’t caused by another mental health problem.

How Is It Treated?

Simply knowing that you’re not suffering from a serious physical condition can be enough to for the symptoms to stop. But if they persist, getting help from your doctor early may help prevent long-term effects. There is no specific medication to treat conversion disorder. Psychotherapy treatments are most often used, including:

  • Occupational or physical therapy
  • Counselling
  • Hypnosis
  • Antidepressants or antipsychotic drugs
  • Symptoms can last from a few days to several weeks. Sometimes they just go away as suddenly as they came on. Most of the time they’re not life-threatening, but they can still have lasting side effects if you don’t seek treatment.
  • The best way to prevent conversion disorder is to try to find effective ways to manage life’s unavoidable stresses. Physical exercise and stress-relieving activities like meditation may help.
  • If you’re already living with a mental health disorder, see your doctor regularly and take your recommended medications to help with prevention, as well.

Credit: Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD for WebMD Medical Reference, 25 September 2016.