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What is Conversion Disorder?

Updated on August 16, 2018
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What is conversion disorder?

Conversion disorder is a condition characterized by the sudden onset of unexplained physical symptoms that emerge due to a psychological etiology. Also called somatoform symptom disorder, it can be difficult to diagnose as behaviors resemble symptoms characteristic of neurological conditions. However, the nature and pattern of symptoms are not consistent with what is typically seen in neurological disorders.

The onset of symptoms in a conversion disorder often follows the occurrence of a traumatic event, emotional or physical. It is not uncommon for affected individuals to lead stressful lives prior to the event. Social isolation, abuse, and low socioeconomic status are all factors that can increase a person's risk of developing conversion disorder. Women are more likely than men to have this condition, and it most commonly occurs in the young adult population.

The symptoms of a conversion disorder can be very distressing for the affected person. Individuals with conversion disorders are experiencing actual physical symptoms. Although most observable symptoms are seizures and involuntary body movements, speech and language problems, such as stuttering, infantile speech, and voice problems, can be present as well.

Faking illness or conversion disorder?

Diagnosing conversion disorder

As mentioned above, conversion disorders often resemble neurological disorders. It is not uncommon for a conversion disorder to co-occur with a neurological disorder. For this reason, it is imperative that presenting symptoms be evaluated carefully to determine if the underlying cause is neurological or psychological. Often, patients will be referred to a neurologist before a psychologist.

Other diagnostic possibilities include malingering or factitious disorder. Individuals who malinger fabricate symptoms to obtain a diagnosis for monetary gain. Individuals with factitious disorder fabricate symptoms for personal gain. It's important that these disorders are ruled out to confirm the cause of one's symptoms and ensure they're receiving the most effective treatment.

Group conversion disorder

Conversion disorder has been known to occur in large groups of people. This is called mass psychogenic illness, or mass hysteria. A case in Le Roy, NY was found in 2012 when 18 high school students developed motor tics, similar to Tourette's disorder.

Treatment for conversion disorder

Prognosis is typically good for individuals with conversion disorders. The goal of intervention is to reverse the presenting symptoms.

Psychotherapy is one type of treatment available for conversion disorders. Some research has found that psychiatry referrals are counterproductive in treating conversion disorder. Establishing trust is important between a provider and patient with conversion disorder as often they do not believe their symptoms are psychological. Psychotherapy may be more appropriate for those that have accepted their diagnosis

"Treatment of communication disorders caused by psychiatric etiologies" is within the scope of practice for a speech-language pathologist, so individuals who are experiencing speech and language problems as a result of their conversion disorder can seek treatment from a licensed SLP. Treatment may involve reducing muscle tension in the face during the production of sounds, followed by words, and lastly during speech.

Although the prognosis for this disorder is good, relapse is present in about 20% patients each year.

What are your thoughts?

Do you agree or disagree that the individuals featured in the news stories are presenting symptoms of conversion disorder? Comment your thoughts below.

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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting hub. I have not heard of this before.

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