Dissociative amnesia is a condition in which a person cannot remember important information about his or her life. This forgetting may be limited to certain specific areas (thematic), or may include much of the person’s life history and/or identity (general).
In some rare cases called dissociative fugue, the person may forget most or all of his personal information (name, personal history, friends), and may sometimes even travel to a different location and adopt a completely new identity. In all cases of dissociative amnesia, the person has a much greater memory loss than would be expected in the course of normal forgetting.
Dissociative amnesia is one of a group of conditions called “dissociative disorders.” Dissociative disorders are mental illnesses in which there is a breakdown of mental functions that normally operate smoothly, such as memory, consciousness or awareness, and identity and/or perception.
Dissociative symptoms can be mild, but they can also be so severe that they keep the person from being able to function, and can also affect relationships and work activities.
Dissociative amnesia is rare; it affects about 1% of men and 2.6% of women in the general population. The environment also plays a role; rates of dissociative amnesia tend to increase after natural disasters and during the war.
Dissociative amnesia has been linked to overwhelming stress, which may be caused by traumatic events such as war, abuse, accidents, or disasters. The person may have suffered the trauma or just witnessed it. There also seems to be a genetic (inherited) connection in dissociative amnesia, as close relatives often have the tendency to develop amnesia.
There are three types, or patterns, of dissociative amnesia:
Dissociative amnesia is different from amnesia caused by medical problems, such as illnesses, strokes, or brain injuries. In medically caused amnesia, recovering memories are rare and generally a slow and gradual process.
Most cases of dissociative amnesia are relatively short. Often, when memories return, they do so suddenly and completely. Memory recovery may happen on its own, after being triggered by something in the person’s surroundings, or in therapy.
Another difference is that people who suffer medical amnesia are quite upset by their memory loss, whereas most people with dissociative amnesia seem to have surprisingly little concern over their amnesia.
If a patient has symptoms of dissociative amnesia, the doctor will perform a complete medical history and physical examination. Although there are no laboratory tests to diagnose dissociative disorders, the doctor might use blood tests or imaging (X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs) to make sure the patient doesn’t have a physical illness or side effects from a medication.
If the person does not have a physical illness, he or she might be referred to a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatric social worker who is specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. This caregiver will perform a clinical interview to get a full picture of the person’s experiences and current functioning. Some psychiatrists and psychologists may use specialized tests or a standard interview such as the Structured Clinical Interview for Dissociation (SCID-D).
The goals of treatment for dissociative amnesia are to relieve symptoms, to make sure the patient and those around him or her are safe, and to “reconnect” the person with his or her lost memories. Treatment also aims to help the person:
The best treatment approach depends on the person, the type of amnesia, and how severe the symptoms are. Treatment will most likely include some combination of the following methods:
People with dissociative amnesia usually respond well to treatment; however, progress and success depend on many things, including the person’s life situation and if he or she has support from family and friends.
For most people with dissociative amnesia, memory eventually returns, sometimes slowly and sometimes suddenly, which makes the overall outlook very good. In some cases, however, the person is never able to fully recover his or her lost memories.
To improve a person’s outlook, it is important to treat any dissociative amnesia problem as soon as possible. It is also important to treat any other problems or complications, such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.
© Copyright 1995-2020 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.
This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 05/20/2016