I have a condition known as Functional Neurological Disorder(FND). I was diagnosed in 2003, when people were even less aware of the condition than they are now. It had a different name(Conversion Disorder) and was labeled as a form of mental illness, rather than as a neurological condition.
In my case, Conversion Disorder remains a useful description, although for many people with FND, Conversion Disorder doesn’t fit – which is one of the major reasons for the name change.
Today, I want to talk about the relationship between Conversion Disorder and Functional Neurological Disorder, and share some suggestions for making sure that you are properly diagnosed, no matter what name may be used.
This post is for you
- If you have had FND/CD mentioned as a possible diagnosis
- If you suspect that you have FND/CD and your doctor(s) will not or cannot confirm it
- If you are one of the people who
arenot currently diagnosed, and doctors seem to have thrown up their hands at finding the cause(s) of your symptoms, you may want to read up on FND and see it if my description resonates with you- this could explain or partially explain your situation.
- If your doctor has told you that you have FND, but that diagnosis just doesn’t feel right, please read on, as I list ways to double-check your diagnosis!
What’s the difference between Functional Neurological Disorder and Conversion Disorder?
Functional Neurological Disorder is identified as a neurological condition where for unknown reasons a person is experiencing a variety of neurological symptoms, while not having any recognizable forms of structural damage in their brain or body.
Conversion disorder is considered a psychological condition, a less common response to trauma, where a patient has physical symptoms(such as seizures, paralysis, urinary dysfunction, myoclonic jerks, or cognitive fog) instead of fully connecting with the emotional impact of the trauma.
When you look into the condition, most websites will suggest that the terms are all synonymous, and it is true that they all describe the same condition, just from different perspectives. The important thing is that your doctor recognizes that this is not an entirely psychological condition, and there are treatments that can help!
Digging into the history of the term, the person who first coined it was an early neurologist, John Ferrier, who noted that for some of his patients, physical therapy and other treatments would lead to the symptoms moving or ‘converting’ from one part of the body to another, rather than disappearing after treatment.
He found that some of his patients would come in with difficulty controlling muscles, say, in their right arm, and after physical therapy, they would suddenly find themselves with similar issues in their left arm with their right arm fully under control. He called this conversion hysteria. Sadly the term is still used by some scientists today.
Sigmund Freud noticed patients who had certain forms of psychological stresses would sometimes “convert” those stresses into physiological symptoms.
These “converted” symptoms could then shift over time to other physical or emotional symptoms. For him, this was a sign of repressed trauma, and the condition was considered psychological. He shifted the name from conversion hysteria to conversion disorder.
Conversion disorder is strongly associated with mental illness and trauma. Conversion symptoms are usually seen as a response to stress and emotional triggers.
Conversion disorder is generally considered a diagnosis of exclusion(meaning that it’s a diagnosis made after other possibilities are exhausted
The name change started in the
What makes FND so different?
‘Functional’ indicates that while the symptoms are real, there is no identifiable structural cause.
For most neurological conditions, they can point to a part of the brain or body that isn’t working correctly or is sending signals that cause the symptoms.
There is damage that can be found on some form of scan, or through testing for specific chemicals in the bloodstream.
Functional symptoms don’t have anything like that, which is why people with functional symptoms are sometimes accused of malingering(pretending to be ill for secondary gain).
FND can be seen using functional MRI(fMRI)s. To be very clear, fMRIs are not diagnostic tools, but are frequently used in research. fMRIs are also where images of changes caused by meditation, depression, and other states of mind are recorded.
Functional symptoms can be identified through certain forms of tests(such as the Hoover test).
For doctors unfamiliar with such techniques, the fact that distraction can stop or change symptoms, and that symptoms vary from person to person and over time is misinterpreted as signs of faking. In reality, the condition is outside of the conscious control of the patient.
Recent studies have shown that there actually are structural differences in the brains of people with FND, with the main differences being in a part of the brain that recognizes control of the body.
When I speak of this lack of knowledge, what I mean is this: if I decide to pick up a glass of water, I just think “I’m going to pick up this glass of water” and then I do.
My FND symptoms might kick in after I pick up the glass and cause me to squeeze the glass more tightly than necessary(others with similar symptoms find they can’t grip the glass tight enough to pick it up).
The signals to squeeze the glass were sent by my brain, but I don’t know it. To me, it feels like all I did was tell my hand to pick up the glass – the fact that I tightened my grip is a complete surprise.
In my case, that hand-tightening signal was likely caused by some stress at the moment, anything from a cold breeze to a moment of uncertainty or fear, to having a cold or similar bodily stress. Or it may be a response by my body to some mental or emotional association I have with something in my environment. Instead of being fully aware of the stress, my brain sent the signal to squeeze the cup.
Neurologists and psychologists have seen many patients over the years who have experienced trauma and then developed functional symptoms.
These functional symptoms have varied between patients and over time, often encompassing urinary dysfunction, psychogenic non-epileptic seizures(PNES), gait dysfunction, movement disorders(tonic-clonic movements, myoclonic tics, and more), dystonia(muscle sets contracting and freezing that way), cognitive fogginess, weakness, or limb paralysis.
Some patients have a history of mental illness and emotional trauma, some have a history of physical trauma, and others apparently have developed symptoms spontaneously.
The good news about FND
Neurologists now can diagnose patients with any of these symptoms or symptom sets as having FND without requiring a psychological consultation, which simplifies the diagnosis process.
FND is not considered a progressive or deadly condition. It is not expected to shorten your lifespan in a measurable way, and it is not something that can only get worse.
It is possible to recover from FND, and commonly people with FND diagnoses get better over time, with appropriate treatment and support.
With modern testing, neurologists have found that many patients with a firm FND diagnosis show extra activity in the area of their brain associated with awareness of actions.
The modern theory is that people with FND, for whatever reason, have damaged their ability to recognize that they are, in fact, in control of their own actions in certain cases.
How or why this happens has not been determined, and the disorder appears to be related to both neurological and psychological issues.
An example to help clarify the process is that I have very strong associations between ladders and trauma, due to my father dying from a brain injury caused by a fall from a ladder. Unless I am having an incredibly good day and have perfect control over my body, seeing a ladder(especially with a person on it) will trigger a symptom.
Most commonly that symptom is related to my gait as I’m usually walking past the ladder, meaning I will miss a step, or stumble, or limp as a go by. But that same trigger used to have me doubling over, losing control of my legs, or dragging a leg behind me, and may trigger a different symptom at other times.
I see the ladder and my brain gets “stuck” on that input, and instead of just processing it as another piece of information, the emotional reaction kind of overloads the circuit and an extra signal goes out to my body, without my conscious mind being aware of any of it. That extra signal becomes my FND symptom.
As I have better understood my condition, and time has passed, and I’ve processed the trauma and grief around losing my father, my responsiveness has decreased, and I’ve also been more likely to feel a small wave of sadness over my loss, rather than being disconnected from my emotions. For me, FND management is a combination of reintegrating my emotions and regaining control over my body.
The challenge of diagnosis
For many conditions, there are diagnostic tests that can, in black and white, confirm or deny a doctor’s hunch on the identity of the condition.
For example, my partner has pernicious anemia, a condition caused by his body’s inability to absorb vitamin B-12. Once his B-12 levels were tested and he was found to have an unmeasurably small amount of it, that pretty much proved that he had B-12 absorption issues as his diet was not low in B-12.
There is no such test for FND. FND isn’t caused by the presence or absence of a particular vitamin or mineral and isn’t associated with the breakdown of any system in the brain that can easily be identified.
FND won’t show up from any scan or test that doctors are likely to prescribe, and its hallmarks are poorly identified or understood.
There are positive tests to confirm the diagnosis, but as the FND diagnosis is relatively new, many neurologists are unaware of these tests, and so incorrectly identify it as conversion disorder, a mental illness that should be treated by a psychiatrist.
My neurologist(who specialized in movement disorders) explained at the time of diagnosis that he was sure I had conversion disorder since the nature of my movement symptoms did not align with any other movement disorder.
In other words, it was a diagnosis of exclusion, but he had the correct expertise to be able to confidently do so.
My myoclonic jerks didn’t work like tics or like seizures(I had already tested negative for epilepsy) or dystonia or tremors. By going down the list of what my movements didn’t look like, and by seeing when I was symptomatic and the inconsistency of my symptoms, he concluded that I had conversion disorder.
His expertise in movement disorders allowed him to know this – if he wasn’t familiar with any of the major dysfunctional movement types, he might have considered one of those conditions.
At the time, I had to also see a psychiatrist(who the neurologist recommended) to confirm his conversion disorder diagnosis. A psychiatrist’s opinion is not required now for the diagnosis of FND.
This makes getting diagnosed
If you are told you have FND, but actually have a different(or additional) condition, doctors sometimes miss the additional issues and assume all your symptoms are FND-related.
Your FND treatment likely won’t make any other condition you have
Also, if you actually have FND but are misdiagnosed by the doctor as having something else, you won’t be getting your FND appropriately treated and you are unlikely to recover.
You’re also wasting energy(and likely money) on unhelpful treatments and possibly going through unnecessary testing or unnecessary treatments.
Making sure your diagnosis is correct
The first step you can take if you have been told that you have FND is to make sure that it’s not just a diagnosis of exclusion. If your doctor tells you that they’ve done the tests they can think of and nothing else makes sense, you will want to get a second(or third) opinion.
If your doctor explains that he or she confirmed your diagnosis through testing(Dr. Stone has a guide for neurologists on functional symptoms), then you can rest assured that you have FND.
Also, some still believe it’s entirely psychological and cannot help you find proper treatment.
If your neurologist seems unfamiliar with FND, look elsewhere. The most likely subspecialty to recognize your condition would be either a movement disorder specialist or, in some cases, a neuropsychiatrist.
FND is very common but is much less commonly diagnosed. Many doctors are also afraid to explain the condition.
For many of them, conversion disorder is a mental illness that they heard about once in med school, and they are not up to date with the condition.
If you think you are misdiagnosed as having FND
If your doctor seems to be jumping to FND a bit too quickly for your comfort, or the description doesn’t seem to match your experience, you may want to rule out rarer or
There are several rare genetic conditions that doctors may not think of, including a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which weakens and stretches connective tissues.
Many doctors think that the most easily available tests are definitive, but apparently testing negative on those isn’t definitive proof that you never had Lyme.
It’s also possible to have multiple diagnoses, which generally means that your
So, if your doctor’s explanation isn’t quite adding up for you, please make sure that you double-check your diagnosis and get a second(or third, or fourth) opinion.
A vital part of FND recovery is the acceptance of the diagnosis, so if you are feeling uncertain about your diagnosis, doing those extra tests or knowing that you have been diagnosed by a neurologist familiar with FND can go a long way towards accepting your diagnosis.
The reason acceptance is so important is that you need to accept that you can gain some control over your symptoms in order to do so.
When your symptoms occur, it’s much more complicated than simply telling them to stop, but you can learn to develop better control if you recognize that on some level, you can learn to control your symptoms.
Treatment for FND
Current treatment for FND varies by doctor, but those most in the know encourage their patients to participate in intensive cross-disciplinary treatment programs.
Aside from the intensive treatment(which teaches the patient a lot of self-management tools), there is an impressive array of psychological and psychiatric tools and techniques that can help us manage our symptoms and better understand our triggers.
To my knowledge, there isn’t yet a proposed explanation for the cause of FND if there is no history of trauma. That doesn’t mean that one does not exist.
Other than the intensive therapy programs and talk therapy in general, the main observation on FND treatments is that FND patients are very susceptible to the placebo effect.
Whenever possible, avoid overly invasive or expensive procedures. FND cannot be treated surgically.
If FND is your primary problem, medications may help your symptoms, but will not cure the condition.
The closest thing there is to a cure for FND is learning to live with the condition and resolving whatever traumas or internal conflicts brought it about – about ⅓ of patients do actually have a
Any FND discussion or support group may make you feel like FND is incurable, since most folks on there are either newly
Conclusion: making sure you are properly diagnosed if FND is suspected
The most important thing with an FND diagnosis is making sure that the person making your diagnosis is FND aware, and not making a diagnosis of exclusion. If you do have FND, your doctor must understand that it is not a psychological condition, but a neurological one that can be responsive to trauma or stress.
If you are having a tough time finding an FND aware doctor, focus on movement disorder treatment centers or organizations that have an FND program. These are most likely to be larger research hospitals.
If any aspect of your FND diagnosis feels incorrect(or incomplete) you may need to see additional specialists, like a Lyme literate doctor, a genetic disorder specialist, or a neurologist who specializes in epilepsy or movement disorders.
You deserve to feel confident about your diagnosis – whether a diagnosis of FND is correct, incorrect, complete, or incomplete. The more you know and the better you understand it, the more likely you are to find a helpful treatment and improve your situation!