A person with conversion disorder may develop physical symptoms that are not under voluntary control. The symptoms can affect motor functions and senses.

There are conversion illnesses which present neurological symptoms that can’t be explained by neurological diseases or medical conditions. The symptoms are real and cause significant distress or problems functioning. Usually, these disorders affect a person’s movement or senses, including their ability to walk, swallow, see or hear. These illnesses are called conversion disorders.

What Is Conversion Disorder?

A person with conversion disorder may develop physical symptoms that are not under voluntary control. The symptoms can affect motor functions and senses. A person may experience blindness, paralysis or other nervous system symptoms. A doctor may not find any injury or other physical condition to explain these symptoms.

Researchers have not yet discovered the cause of conversion disorder though its symptoms can be triggered by physically or psychologically traumatic events or by stress. A person may be at an increased risk of developing the condition if they have another neurological disease, movement disorder, or a mental health condition.

Symptoms of Conversion Disorder

Symptoms of conversion disorders may vary and can affect body movement, function and the senses. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Uncontrollable movements
  • Tunnel vision or blindness
  • Loss of smell or speech
  • Slurred speech
  • Numbness or paralysis
  • Difficulty swallowing or feeling a lump in the throat
  • Seizures or episodes of shaking
  • The apparent loss of consciousness
  • Episodes of unresponsiveness

Causes of Conversion Disorder

The exact cause of conversion disorders is unknown. Essentially, parts of the brain that control the functioning of muscles and senses may be involved, even though no disease or abnormality exists.

Conversion disorders may appear suddenly after a stressful event, or along with emotional or physical trauma. Other onsets may include changes or disruptions in brain functions.

Diagnosing Conversion Disorder

Because the cause is unknown, conversion disorder may be diagnosed by the process of elimination. After the physician has ruled out other physical, mental or neurological causes, they may ask the patient if they’ve experienced any recent traumatic events.

For a doctor to diagnose someone with conversion disorder, the person’s symptoms must meet the specific standards. Symptoms must:

  • Affect movement or senses
  • Be uncontrollable
  • Not be explained by any other condition, medication or behavior
  • Cause stress in social and work settings
  • Not be caused by another mental health problem

Who Is at Risk for Conversion Disorder?

Even though there are no specific causes of the disorder, there are a few factors that may contribute to the development of conversion disorder. Factors that may increase a person’s risk of experiencing conversion disorders include:

  • Having a neurological disorder, such as epilepsy
  • Recent significant emotional or physical trauma, or stress
  • Having a mental health condition, such as a mood or anxiety disorderdissociative disorder or certain personality disorders
  • Having a family member with a conversion disorder
  • Being female, because women may be more likely than men to develop conversion disorders

Statistics on Conversion Disorder

The lifetime prevalence rate of conversion disorder in the general U.S. population is approximately 100 cases per 100,000 people. Among adults, women struggle with conversion disorder almost three times as often as men. People who have low education levels and low socioeconomic status may be more likely to develop a conversion disorder. Additionally, the prevalence of conversion disorder in developing countries may be as high as 31 percent.

Conversion Disorder and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse may not cause conversion disorder, but drug or alcohol use can increase a person’s risk of developing a conversion disorder. Substance use can also worsen a person’s existing, negative symptoms.

Conversion Disorder Treatment

Treatment will depend on a person’s particular symptoms. For some people, multiple approaches may be necessary. There is no specific medication to treat conversion disorder. However, some medications such as antidepressants may improve symptoms. Physical or occupational therapy can be used to improve symptoms related to movement or weakness, while psychotherapy treatments include counseling or hypnosis.

If you or a loved one needs treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction and a co-occurring issue like a conversion disorder, The Recovery Village can help. Individuals who struggle with co-occurring disorders can receive compassionate treatment from one of the facilities located across the country. To learn more, call The Recovery Village today to speak with a representative.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Krisi Herron, LCDC
Krisi Herron is an Adjunct Psychology Professor, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and a freelance writer who contributes to several mental health blogs. Read more

Medical News Today.  “Conversion disorder: What you need to know” January 2018, Accessed December 2018

Feinstein, Anthony. “Conversion disorder: advances in our understanding” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal 2011.Accessed December 218

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.