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The term conversion disorder refers to a condition in which physical symptoms are manifested as a result of an underlying psychological problem – the psychological problem ‘converts’ itself into a physical problem though generally (without extensive clinical investigation) both the person with the condition and his/her doctor are unaware that the presenting physical problem has its origins in the patient’s troubled condition of mind.

How Common Is Conversion Disorder?

Severe and long-lasting symptoms of conversion affect as few as one person in every twenty thousand people each year. People affected tend to be young (about ten years old to thirty-five years old) and are more likely to be female than male. These uncommon conversion disorders include :

– blindness / impaired vision

– paralysis

– difficulty swallowing

– seizures and convulsions (not caused by epilepsy)

– deafness / impaired hearing

– inability to speak (sometimes also referred to as hysterical aphonia)

– difficulties with swallowing

(The above list is not exhaustive.)

 

How Is Conversion Disorder Related To Childhood Trauma?

In order for conversion disorder to be diagnosed, a prior occurring stressor (assumed to have caused the physical symptom) must be identified – often, the identified stressor is childhood trauma (first described by Sigmund Freud who regarded conversion disorder as a defense mechanism against internal mental conflict).

How Can Psychological Problems Convert To Physical Ones?

This is not yet fully explicable.

Problems Associated With Diagnosis Conversion Disorder :

Problems with a diagnosis of conversion disorder include the difficulty of ruling out all possible alternative (i.e. organic as opposed to psychological) explanations for the development of the physical problem, including the possibility that the patient is feigning the symptom.

Treatment Of Conversion Disorder :

Because conversion disorder has its roots in psychological difficulties, often those suffering from it have also been diagnosed with a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression; treating the comorbid condition may alleviate or eliminate the particular physical symptom pertaining to the individual’s conversion disorder.

N.B. When no obvious prior psychological stressor can be found to have preceded a physical symptom with no medically explicable cause a formal diagnosis of conversion disorder cannot be made; in such cases, a diagnosis of functional neurological symptom disorder is sometimes made instead.

 

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).