What is conversion disorder?

By Lisa Marinelli Smith 
NeuLine Health

A young woman experiences sudden paralysis on her left side but hasn’t been in a traumatic accident or suffered any illness that would have caused it. 

Her condition perplexes an ER physician, who searches for a reason for the paralysis but can’t find any physical link. That’s because psychological distress actually has led to it, which makes her rare condition, known as conversion disorder, trickier to diagnose.

People with conversion disorder experience a range of symptoms that begin suddenly after a period of emotional distress or psychological conflict, according to the National Institutes of Health.

These symptoms often mimic neurological problems, including: 

  • Hallucinations  
  • Loss of sense of touch
  • Loss of the sense of smell
  • Loss of the voice
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures 
  • Sudden blindness
  • Tingling in the extremities
  • Trouble coordinating movements

People with conversion disorder don’t fake the symptoms as a way to get attention. The symptoms are real and uncontrollable.

Who is most at risk for conversion disorder?

People who have suffered traumatic psychological experiences, even those that occurred in the past, and immense internal conflict, can develop conversion disorder. Those who already suffer from mental illness are more at risk of developing a conversion disorder.

Conversion disorder is more common in women, people of lower socioeconomic status and military personnel, according to NIH. Most develop symptoms of conversion disorder during adolescence or adulthood.

The condition isn’t genetic, but first-degree female relatives of someone with conversion disorder (sister, mother, or daughter) have a 14-times higher chance of developing symptoms than other women in the general population. Researchers suspect this is due to shared environmental and risk factors for the development of the disorder.

How do doctors diagnose conversion disorder?

Brain imaging in some people with conversion disorder shows increased or reduced blood flow to some regions of the brain. This reduced blood flow may explain why the signals it sends to the different parts of the body aren’t working correctly. 

In addition, if people experience seizures as a symptom of conversion disorder, a doctor may order an EEG (electroencephalogram), which measures electrical activity in the brain using small electrodes attached to the head and forehead. If the noninvasive test reports abnormal electrical activity during a seizure, doctors likely will pursue epilepsy as part of the diagnosis. 

However, if the brain’s electrical activity is normal, the seizure would be considered a psychogenic non-epileptic seizure. This seizure is not caused by epilepsy but rather by psychological factors. 

NeuLine Health offers at-home, ambulatory EEG testing, which may be a better option for people who have anxiety and a psychological condition. Rather than checking into an epilepsy monitoring unit for three days, the patient could be at home during the three-day test.

Criteria for conversion disorder

To be diagnosed with conversion disorder, the person would show:

  • One or more symptoms of neurological dysfunction that are serious enough to seek medical attention
  • No physical reason or disease to explain the symptoms 

Usually, a neurologist and a psychiatrist will work together to make the diagnosis.

How is conversion disorder treated?

Symptoms of conversion disorder usually last for days to weeks. Often, when a person receives reassurance that the paralysis, blindness or other symptom isn’t linked to a physical cause, the condition may go away on its own.  

Other times, the person will need therapy to treat conversion disorder. Treatment can include: 

  • Hypnosis
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy 
  • Psychotherapy
  • Treatment of related physical or psychological stressors

About 25 percent of those diagnosed with conversion disorder may show a recurrence or new symptoms later.

For more information about EEGs through NeuLine Health call (844) 212-5321 or visit our website.

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