What is conversion disorder?

Conversion disorder, also called functional neurological symptom disorder, is a medical problem involving the function of the nervous system; specifically, the brain and body’s nerves are unable to send and receive signals properly. As a result of this “communication” problem, patients with conversion disorders may have difficulty moving their limbs or have problems with one or more of their senses.

In the past, conversion disorder was thought to be an entirely psychological disorder, where psychological problems get “converted” into physical symptoms. Today, conversion disorder is recognized as its own distinct disorder. Psychological issues (for example, trauma, personal conflicts, life stressors) are often seen in patients with conversion disorder symptoms, but are not always present in all patients.

Care of patients with conversion disorder overlaps the fields of psychiatry and neurology. However, it is important to note that the symptoms are real; they are not made up and patients are not faking them.

How common is conversion disorder?

The number of people with conversion disorder is not well known. Some researchers have estimated the number of patients with ongoing symptoms to be 2 to 5 individuals per every 100,000 patients per year.

Who is affected by conversion disorder?

Although conversion disorder can occur at any age, it tends to develop during adolescence to early adulthood. Conversion disorder is more common in women. About two-third of patients have evidence of psychiatric disease, the most common being depression and trauma. Personality disorders are also commonly seen.

What are the causes of conversion disorder?

There is no specific cause of conversion disorder. Instead, researchers believe there are many risk factors and/or triggers that may lead to the development of conversion disorder. One of the more commonly reported scenarios is that conversion disorder may be triggered by the body’s reaction to psychological trauma or a stressful event. Other doctors and researchers believe that a physical injury, infection, migraine, or panic attacks might trigger the development of conversion disorder. Many researchers are beginning to believe that regardless of the trigger, the symptoms seem to “get stuck” instead of getting better. Then functional problems emerge.

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
  • Seizures, blackout, fainting
  • Tremors, spasms
  • Sleep problems
  • Overactive bladder
  • Hallucinations

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

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy