Conversion disorder is a mental illness when neurological symptom exists without an explanation.
Imagine you're just finishing up your lunch break when you suddenly can't move your legs. Up until this point, you were perfectly healthy with no signs of any kind of physical illness. It would be terrifying, to say the least — and this is exactly what happens when someone has conversion disorder.
"Conversion disorder is a psychiatric condition diagnosed when an impairing neurological symptom exists without a medical or cultural explanation," Dr. Jared Heathman explains. "Symptoms must not be purposeful."
The symptoms someone with conversion disorder experiences aren't made up (that's called malingering). It can be difficult to diagnose conversion disorder and some doctors may tell a sufferer that what's happening to them is all in their head, but this is a real condition that causes real distress and can't be turned off and on at will.
Dr. John Mayer explains conversion disorder as a "physical manifestation of a mental illness." The conversion disorder symptoms often begin after a stressful or traumatic experience, and the resulting stress can be physical or psychological. The amount of stress that causes the disorder can vary in every person.
"The bottom line is that this stress is somehow converted into a physical symptom," Dr. Jay Salpekar, director of the Neurobehavioral Program at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, told CNN. "Everybody has their breaking point."
The exact cause of conversion disorder is unknown. One theory is that the physical symptoms are an attempt to resolve the conflict an individual feels inside. It has been suggested that the part of the brain that controls the muscles and the senses may be involved.
Here are 16 signs and symptoms of conversion disorder:
- You experience sudden blindness.
- You can't speak.
- You experience numbness.
- You suffer from paralysis.
- You can't control your movements.
- You experience sudden hearing loss.
- You have body weakness.
- You lose your sense of balance.
- You have difficulty swallowing or have a continuous lump in the throat.
- You experience seizures and/or convulsions.
- You have a pre-existing medical illness.
- You already suffer from a dissociative disorder and/or a personality disorder.
- You have a family member who has conversion disorder.
- You have a history of physical or sexual abuse or neglect in childhood.
- You have a neurological disease that has similar symptoms, such as epilepsy.
- You're female — women are much more likely to develop the condition then men.
To treat someone with conversion disorder, doctors first treat any underlying medical or psychological conditions. Anti-anxiety drugs may be prescribed to help with the stress, while therapy is used to calm symptoms and teach stress management techniques. Other treatments include physical therapy to help with uncontrollable movements or hypnosis/magnetic stimulation in the brain.
The complications of conversion disorder can be debilitating and frightening, but hopefully, more information will become available in the future.