Conversion Disorder

Conversion disorder is classified as one of the somatoform disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and occurs when a person suffers neurological ailments such as blindness, paralysis, numbness or inability to speak, but there are no physiological causes for it. Researchers suggest that conversion disorder is caused by emotional or psychological stress that is expressed as a nervous system problem instead of a psychological one.

Symptoms of Conversion Disorder:

  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Paralysis in an extremity like an arm or leg
  • Experiencing difficulty swallowing
  • Double vision and blindness
  • Loss of hearing
  • Seizing or convulsing
  • Numbness
  • Inability to feel pain
  • Urinary retention

Causes of Conversion Disorder

The immediate cause of conversion disorder is a stressful event or situation that leads the patient to develop bodily symptoms as symbolic expressions of a long-standing psychological conflict or problem. Physical symptoms develop as a sort of symbol of psychiatric conflict that has been lingering. A psychiatrist described these physical symptoms as “a code that conceals the message from the sender as well as from the receiver.” People with conversion disorder often tend to be victims of childhood or adulthood abuse of some kind. Conversion disorder can also develop following a stressful or emotional event like a divorce or violence. The disorder then can be viewed as a coping mechanism for these events.

Treatment for Conversion Disorder

For many people, conversion disorder usually resolves itself without treatment; however, some patients may benefit from treatment if symptoms linger or continually reoccur, or if they suffer from other mental or physical health conditions. The physical symptoms will need attention from a medical professional such as a physical therapist or doctor. Since cause for conversion disorder can also be psychiatric, it’s very important to seek out a psychiatrist or psychologist for help as well. These trained professionals can help you to learn new coping mechanisms for stress and trauma that will assist you in successfully dealing with your problem. With new coping skills and therapy, symptoms won’t need to express themselves neurologically. Also, a therapist can help with anxiety and depression, other disorders that can be linked with conversion disorder. So, physical therapy and some kind of psychotherapy are generally required to treat conversion disorder. Another psychological option is hypnosis, which can sometimes help patients get to the bottom of an issue.

What Should You Do?

If you are experiencing neurological symptoms like blindness or paralysis, it’s very important to see a doctor right away. The physical problem should be dealt with so that you can function before attempting therapy. It is crucial to see a therapist as soon as you can so that you can prevent the neurological symptoms from returning. It’s important to try to keep a supportive relationship between yourself, your physical therapist and your mental therapist. With the combined efforts on all fronts, you can stop the physical symptoms and effects, and begin to gain control over your mental health.

View Resources

Wikipedia – Wikipedia page for conversion disorder, including diagnosis, epidemiology and treatment.

Mayo Clinic – Webpage for conversion disorder, including descriptions of treatment options.

Medline Plus – A brief but comprehensive description of conversion disorder.

Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders – Encyclopedic listing for conversion disorder, including lengthy descriptions.

NYU Langone Medical Center – Comprehensive webpage explaining conversion disorder.


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