What is conversion disorder?

Conversion disorder, also called functional neurological disorder, is a condition in which abnormal movements or sensations (spells, weakness, tremors) are not due to injury or disease, but rather a result of a miscommunication of the nervous system and the body. These symptoms are biological in nature and are not voluntary or “fake.” Your child may feel extremely distressed about his or her health symptoms and it may be interfering with daily life such as missing school, not wanting to be with peers, or avoiding typically enjoyed activities.

Other terms that you may hear related to conversion disorder includes psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES), pseudoseizures, spells, numbness, paresthesia, and functional gait disorder.

How common is conversion disorder?

Conversion disorder in young children is rare. It typically emerges in adolescent to early adulthood. Although no general childhood prevalence figures are available, it has been reported in about 1 to 2 percent of children in the inpatient psychiatric setting and in about 5 to 6 percent of children in neurological clinics.

Who is affected by conversion disorder?

Conversion disorder is more common in females. About two-thirds of patients have evidence of co-existing psychiatric condition, (anxiety, depression, trauma), although this is not necessary for a diagnosis in children or adolescents.

What are the causes of conversion disorder?

Researchers believe there are biological and psychosocial factors (learned ways of thinking in the context of a person’s social environment) involved in the development of conversion disorder, which may include:

  • Continuing, unresolved symptoms after an illness or injury
  • Stress or struggles that a child has not been able to communicate verbally
  • Indications/signs of emotional distress, including excessive attention to bodily processes and possible signs of illness; low pain threshold; increased anxiety about good health.

What are the symptoms of conversion disorder?

Conversion disorder is like many other disorders or diseases that have many causes, many risk factors, and a wide range of symptoms. Also, symptoms vary from person to person. Symptoms of conversion disorder include:

  • Loss of vision, double vision, sensitivity to light
  • Limb weakness or paralysis
  • Loss of voice, slurred or stuttered speech
  • Trouble coordinating movements
  • Memory issues, thinking problems
  • Headaches, migraines
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Chronic pain
  • Loss of sense of touch
  • Loss of hearing
  • Numbness, tingling in limbs, body or face
  • Seizure-like episodes, blackout, fainting
  • Tremors, spasms
  • Sleep problems
  • Overactive bladder
  • Hallucinations

Some patients only have a few symptoms; some have many symptoms. Symptoms vary in intensity and frequency. In some patients, symptoms are always present; in others, they appear, disappear, and reappear.

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