Conversion disorder is a psychological disorder that causes symptoms that appear to be neurological, such as paralysis, speech impairment, or tremors, but with no obvious or known organic causes. It is a relatively unique mental illness and is categorized as a type of somatic symptom disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the leading diagnostic guide for the mental health profession.
There's typically a sudden rush of symptoms that affect spontaneous motor or sensory function—and these symptoms can disappear just as suddenly, without any physiological reason.
The physical indications of conversion disorder are often described as your body's way of dealing with unresolved stress or unexpressed emotions that triggered the disorder. In other words, the physical symptoms distract the person from the emotional pressure. Conversion disorder typically affects movement function as well as the senses.
Symptoms of conversion disorder can be about any neurological deficit imaginable, including:
Abnormal walking or tremors
Blindness or double vision
Deafness or problems hearing
Disturbances in coordination
Episode of unresponsiveness
Loss of balance
Loss of the sense of smell (anosmia)
Loss of touch (anesthesia)
Loss of voice (aphonia)
Numbness or loss of the sensation of touch
Seizures or convulsions
Slurred speech or inability to speak
Temporary blindness or double vision
Trouble swallowing or feelings of "a lump" in your throat
Weakness or paralysis
While exact causes are not well understood, research suggests that it could be caused by unusual flow to certain areas of the brain. Conversion disorder may also be a psychological reaction to extremely stressful events or emotional trauma.
Other risk factors of conversion disorder include:4
Being female (Women have a higher risk of developing the disorder.)
Being highly conscientious, hard-working, compulsive, and a perfectionist
Having a family member with conversion disorder (People with a first-degree female relative—sister, mother, or daughter—with conversion disorder are more likely to develop symptoms than females in the general population.)
Having maladaptive personality traits
Having a neurological disease that causes similar symptoms (such as non-epileptic seizures in people that have epilepsy)
Conversation disorder is not a permanent disorder. If you or someone you love is experiencing severe or lingering symptoms of conversion disorder, treatment may be required and will depend on your individual symptoms.
However, symptoms may improve on their own with time even without treatment, and most people do get better with time and reassurance.
Psychotherapy, including individual or group therapy, cognitive-behavioral, hypnosis, biofeedback, and relaxation therapy, have been found to help people with conversation disorder recognize triggers and symptoms and learn new ways to cope with them.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication or antidepressant to treat the underlying stress or anxiety that is producing the symptoms of conversion disorder.
Physical therapy is often used for people with conversation disorders who have mobility disturbances, including problems with coordination, balance, or walking, or weak limbs. It's also important to prevent any secondary complications, including muscle weakness and stiffness, that result from inactivity.
Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation (NIBS) Methods
Non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS) methods, such as electroconvulsive therapy, is a possible alternative treatment to reduce conversion disorder symptoms, including limb weakness and paralysis.
However, it is necessary to be aware that these treatments are considered experimental and there is a lack of rigorous randomized controlled trials. Because of this, these treatments should be viewed with caution.