Journal of Clinical Studies & Medical Case Reports Category: Medical Type: Case Report

Conversion Disorder and Spinal cord Injury: Case report

Gabriella Fizzotti1*, Giovani Fassina2, Valeria Pirola3 and Livio Tronconi2
1 Spinal unit, ICS Maugeri SPA SB, Institute of Pavia, IRCCS, Pavia, Italy
2 IRCCS Mondino Foundation Pavia, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy
3 Faculty of medicine, University of Genova, Genova, Italy

*Corresponding Author(s):
Gabriella Fizzotti
Spinal Unit, ICS Maugeri SPA SB, Institute Of Pavia, IRCCS, Pavia, Italy

Received Date: Mar 05, 2021
Accepted Date: Mar 09, 2021
Published Date: Mar 16, 2021


Introduction: The aetiology of conversion disorder is unknown, though association with emotional stress and with organic brain disorder has been described. Paraplegia as a conversion reaction has been reported infrequently. Combination of motor and sensory disturbance, other than paraplegia, may occur as a manifestation of a conversion reaction, and may suggest Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). 

Case Report: A 35-year-old Italian woman who had a history of post traumatic SCI which affected her lower limb when she was 29 years old. Patient was unable to empty his bladder completely.The aim of this paper is to describe the correlation between diagnosis of conversion disease and SCI. 

Clinical Rehabilitation Impact: Chronic conversion disorder can be resistant to rehabilitation treatment. Neurophysiological diagnostic procedures adopted in our study discern the degree of central and peripheral nervous system damage and confirmed the integrity of spinal cord in conversion disorder. 

Conclusion: Our case report describes the association between conversion disease, SCI, and neurophysiological tests and suggests to apply the neurophysiological tests to validate conversion disorder diagnosis in SCI.


Conversion disorder; Paraplegia; Rehabilitation


“Conversion disorder” is the term used in the DSM-IV classification system, originating from the description by Breuer and Freud, et al. of pseudoneurological symptoms resulting from conversion of an unconscious psychological conflict to somatic representation [1-4]. Other adjectives historically used to describe the same phenomena include “hysterical” and “psychogenic”.Typical comorbid diagnoses include mood disorders, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders, social or specific phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorders [5-7]. In psychoanalytical terms, conversion is the symbolic transformation of a dangerous emotion (aggression, rage, sexual excitement) into a somatic symptom, representing acompromise between the undesirable affect and the defense against it. The symptoms of hysteria can affect any aspect of elementary neurological function including involuntary movements or paralysis, non-epileptic seizures, mutism, urinary retention, hallucinations, pain, blindness, deafness, and analgesia. Inconsistencies on examination suggest this diagnosis. These include simultaneous contraction of muscular agonists and antagonists, fluctuating weakness, non anatomical sensory loss, tunnel vision, and astasia-abasia. Some patients show a curious belle indiffe´rence toward their neurological handicap [8]. Brain imaging, electroencephalography, and sensory evoked potentials are normal. Paraplegia as a conversion reaction has been reported infrequently [2,3]. Combinations of motor and sensory disturbance, other than, paraplegia, may occur as a manifestation of a consersion reaction, and may suggestv spinal cord injury. Hysterical paraplegia is not recorded by Guttmann, Bedbrook, et al. and other authors of book on spinal cord injury so that we can assume that the condition is rare. The diagnosis of conversion disorder is not one of exclusion [9]. There must be positive evidence demonstrating that the dysfunction is functional rather than organic. Imaging: NMR, X-ray, CT and electrophysiological studies, sensory and motor evoked potentials, urodynamics are usually normal however, presence of findings rarely elucidate the clinical symtoms. When a subject is admitted with paraplegia, normal reflexes and full control of sphincters, a routne X-ray is sufficient, and the diagnosis is clinical. CT and NMR are unnecessary, and are performed just as additional supporting evidence for the clinical diagnosis [10].

Case Report

In this study, we have evaluated a patient admitted to the Spinal Unit of the Scientific Institute of ICS Maugeri in Pavia, in the period between January and March 2020. The patient was a 35-year-old Italian woman, who had a history of post traumatic SCI which affected her lower limbs when she was 29 years old, while her upper limit had not been affected. There was no medical history of diabetes mellitus or alcohol dependence. Patient presented thyroid dysfunction and anxiety disorders.She was admitted to hospital where she alleged paralysis and loss of sensation in the both legs. Physical examination revealed normal tone and trophism and muscle strength of her lower limbs. There were no spasms.Deep tendon reflexes were evocable. Sensation to light touch, temperature and pain was intact. Bladder function was impaired: although voiding was attempted by manual compression of the bladder, patient was unable to empty her bladder completely causing significant post voiding residual volumes; self-catheterization, performed four times a day, showed reduced post voiding residual volumes. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the dorsal spine did not reveal any neurological compression of the cord or lumbar and sacral roots. The renal scintigraphic investigation showed a glomerular filtration function within the limits of normality. Motor Evoked Potentials, (MEPs) of the lombar motor roots were bilaterally within normal limits, the latencies of the motor responses evoked in the lower limbs, as well as the relative times central management. Peripheral conduction (ankle-popliteal fossa) and cortical response (P40) resulting from electrical stimulation of the tibial nerve at the ankle resulted normal. We also studied the Motor Evoked Potentials (MEPs) in transverse perineal muscles by magnetic stimulation of the sacral motor roots to investigate the efferent motor path [11,12]. Needle Electromyography (EMG) of right transverse perineal muscle, innervated by the pudendal nerve, evidenced chronic denervation signs, without denervation activity at rest. The diagnosis was made by demonstrating normal motor and sensitive nerve conduction to the clinically weak muscles. The patient refused urodynamic examination. According to normal values used in our Unit of Clinical Neurophysiology, the sacral MEPs were bilaterally delayed. 

During the hospitalization psychological monitoring were carried out. In personal anamnesis emerged important and complex events in the family context that represented a source of anxiety and psychological distress for the patient. We evaluated an intensive multidisciplinary treatment focusing on body-related mentalization and acceptance. The muscle weakness was treated by intensive physical personal rehabilitation program. Patient had no significant motor improvement at the end of the rehabilitation program.


According to DSM-IV criteria [8], conversion disorder is characterised by: one or more symptoms affecting voluntarymotor or sensory function resemblance to neurological or medical disease involvement of psychological factors unintentional, unfeigned symptoms. 

Case report identified an injury to which she related the start of her conversion symptoms. She had fall of a minor nature which could support a diagnosis of an extension injury but this was only in retrospect following radiography. It was difficult to reconcile the injury with the severity of the paralysis [13]. Conversion disorder shares high comorbidity with anxiety, depression, and personality disorders. Reich, et al. was the first author who undertook a careful description of the hysterical character [14]. The hysterical personality profile stands out for four of the seven features enumerated by Retch a long time ago. Histrionic behaviour, emotional lability, dependency, demandinguess, suggestibility, excitability, vivid immagination. Case report presented four features of the hysterical personality. Histrionic beahavior: characterized by an air of artificial superiority devised to gain attention, sympathy or even admiration. Emotional lability: characterized by outbursts of most frequently-laughter or crying, precipitated by an insufficient cause, often in an uncontrollable manner. Seductiveness: a form of interpersonal behavior and a coping strategy used by the hysterical personality to draw sustenance from those around him. Egocentrism: in dynamic terms this is called “narcissism”. An exaggerated tendency to serve and gratify one's own needs regardless of any other consideration. The elements of the physical examination of a patient with conversion disorder are most important [15]. Reflex function in the presence of paralysis should alert an examiner to the possibility that no spinal cord injury exists, suggesting a functional paralysis. To test motor function the physician can place a hand under both heels and perform a straight leg rising test on one side and frequently if there is not a true paralysis, the examiner will feel a pushing down pressure on the unelevated heel. Regarding diagnostic studies, routine X-rays are all that is required. If the X-rays are normal and the patient has normal reflexes, further evaluation may be delayed for 24 to 48 hours. It is also of interest that the patient can generate new functional symptoms by actively directing attention towards the body during directed manoeuvres that are performed when examining a patient. Underlying this process may be at least three types of factors: a ‘predisposing’ loss of sensory attenuation, a ‘precipitating’ incident generating illness expectations, and a ‘perpetuating’ further increase in attention to bodily symptoms. The possibility that functional symptoms co-exist with other symptoms of established neurological disease should also be considered [16]. According to the  literature the presence of psychiatric comorbidities was correlated with outcome in eight studies [17-24]; six found a negative effect on outcome [17,18,21-24]. Ibrahim, et al. found a high Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) score was correlated with bad outcome [17], Mace and Trimble found anxiety had a worse effect than depression, Feinstein, et al. found that the severity of psychiatric comorbidity influenced outcome [21]. Jankovic, et al. reported that any psychological, psychogenic or somatic comorbidity predicted negative outcome [18]. Binzer, et a. however, did not find any correlation between diagnosis and outcome. Personality disorder was negatively correlated with outcome in three studies [22,23,25]. The diagnosis of non-organic paraplegia is not easy. Without markers for a non organic lesion and without psychological features, the diagnosis of a functional disorder is incorrect. The etiology of conversion disorders in SCI patient rapresent a complex and individual process. The practical question is “how does the physician diagnose the patient likely to have a feigned or non organic paraplegia?” [26]. Psychodynamic theory suggests that the person derives “primary gain” by keeping an internal conflict or need out of awareness. In such cases, the symptom has a symbolic value that is a representation and partial solution of the underlying psychological conflict [27]. The learning theory explanation describes the conversion disorder symptoms as a learned maladaptive response to stress [28]. The person achieves “secondary gain” by avoiding a particular activity that is noxious to him or her, and getting support from the environment that otherwise might not be forthcoming. Patients with this diagnosis can be heterogeneous. Case reporthas told her life characterized by different and negativeevents: separation from her husband, two children to raise and a state of unemployment. A comprehensive psychiatric evaluation may be needed to diagnose emotional, behavioral, or developmental disorders. Evaluation includedpersonal and family history of emotional, behavioral. Case report retraced her clinical history and some of the complex family events inherent the separation from her husband and the management of children that are the first cause of deep anxiety and emotional tension. Baker and Silvester found that the association with active matrimonial proceedings in women is significant [28]; but the overall divorce rate and matrimonial disharmony is no higher in people with conversion disorder. Doesn’t exist any relationship with intelligence, the presence of “belle indifference” or circumscribed memory deficit, and subjective comments by doctors on the quality of the patient's history totally unhelpful [29-34]. Sexual history was unhelpful; many patients in both groups had problems with potency of libido, albeit transient, before injury. By Wen-ShingTsengin the Handbook of Cultural Psychiatry [35], chapter on stress and coping patterns, discussed the dynamic nature of stress, its measurement, its effect on mental disorders. In Raskin, et al. study all patients had a stressfull event associated with the onset of their weakness [36]. Emotional stress has been considered as one of the psycological criteria for this condition before injury. Some conversion reactions are transient, whereas others are very persistent [37]. There is evidence that even chronic conversion symptoms can resolve spontaneously but resolution may be helped by insight-oriented, supportive or behavioural therapy [38]. A shorter duration of symptoms prior to diagnosis was shown to predict a better outcome in nine studies [39-48]. There were no studies which did not find a relationship between duration of symptoms prior to diagnosis and outcome. Case report developed symptoms after a domestic fall in 2014 and the diagnosis of non-organic paraplegia was postulated in 2020. Conversion symptoms, especially when acute, may undergo spontaneous resolution following explanation and suggestion. Some patients respond to active rehabilitation. Those with chronic and entrenched conversion symptoms may require admission to a psychiatric unit that has expertise in conversion disorder. Such individuals may undergo psychiatric decompensation as their symptoms improve, revealing depression or even previously hidden psychosis [49]. In terms of diagnostic error, a systematic review which included 27 studies with 1466 patients, from 1965 to 2003 and with an average follow-up of five years, demonstrated that diagnostic errors or false positives are decreasing: in 1950, 29% (interval 23-36%); in 1960, 17% (12-24%); in 1970, 4% (2-6%), and in 1980, 4% (2-6%). This difference is statistically significant (p<0.02), independently of age, gender and duration of symptoms [50]. There is growing evidence that physiotherapy is an effective treatment, but the existing literature has limited explanations of what physiotherapy should consist of and there are insufficient data to produce evidence-based guidelines [51]. SCI Patients with conversion disorder are referred to physiotherapists of Spinal  Unit.Not all patients with an acute onset of conversion symptoms will require additional specific treatment. A proportion will experience spontaneous remission, but follow-up studies have shown that the majority of patients remain symptomatic in the long term [52,53]. Case reportpresented no significant motor improvement at the end of the rehabilitation program. Chronicity of symptoms and the mood instability can conditioning poor rehabilitative outcome. Feinstein, et al. found that the severity of psychiatric comorbidity influenced outcome.In others studies  personality disorder of case report was negatively correlated with a positive outcome [21-23,25]. 

The limit of this study was caused by physiotherapy resources that are currently employed for case report but the supporting structures do not exist and there is a lack of information for physiotherapists to help plan their treatment. The patient's lack of motor recovery correlated to chronicity of the disorder could have been conditioned by the limitation of the rehabilitation experience.Therefore training or retraining in social skills becomes a needed ingredient in a comprehensive therapeutic regime.


Clinicians who treat patients with suspected functional neurological disorders now have the opportunity to adopt electrophysiological studies as diagnostic strategies.With the current interest for this clinical condition and the contribution from research and neurosciences, it is possible to think that in the near future the understanding of the neurogenesis of these disorders will improve and patients will be offered better therapeutic approaches.


  1. Whitlock FA (1967) The aetiology of hysteria. Acta Psychiatr Scand 43: 144-162.
  2. Brown W, Pisetsky JE (1954) Sociopsychologic factors in hysterical paraplegia. J Nerv Ment Dis 119: 283-298.
  3. Watsn N (1982) An outbreak of hysterical paraplegia. Paraplegia 20: 154-157.
  4. Breuer J, Freud S: Studies on hysteria, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. II. Edited and translated by Strachey J, Strachey A. London, Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955, pp vii– xxxi, 1–311 (original work published 1893–1895).
  5. Binzer M, Andersen PM, Kullgren G (1997) Clinical characteristics of patients with motor disability due to conversion disorder: A prospective control group study. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 63: 83-88.
  6. Ford CV, Folks DG (1985) Conversion disorders: An overview. Psychosomatics 26: 371-374.
  7. Lazare A (1981) Current concepts in psychiatry. Conversion symptoms. N Engl J Med 305: 745-748.
  8. American Psychiatric Association (2000) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) (4thedn). American Psychiatric Press, Washington DC., USA.
  9. Weintraub M (1983) Hysterical conversion reactions: A clinical guide to diagnosis and treatment. Springer, Netherlands.
  10. Heruti RJ, Levy A, Adunski A, Ohry A (2002) Conversion motor paralysis disorder: Overview and rehabilitation model. Spinal Cord 40: 327-334.
  11. Ertekin C, Hansen MV, Larsson LE, Sjödahl R (1990) Examination of the descending pathway to the external anal sphincter and pelvic floor muscles by transcranial cortical stimulation. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 75: 500-510.
  12. Pelliccioni G, Scarpino O, Piloni V (1997) Motor evoked potentials recorded from external anal sphincter by cortical and lumbo-sacral magnetic stimulation: normative data. J Neurol Sci 149: 69-72.
  13. Baker JH, Silver JR (1987) Hysterical paraplegia. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 50: 375-382.
  14. Reich W (1949) Character-analysis (3rdedn). Orgune Institute Press, New York, USA.
  15. Restrepo M, Restrepo D (2019) From conversion disorders to functional neurological disorders. Overcoming the rule-out diagnosis? Rev Colomb Psiquiatr 48: 174-181.
  16. Sonoo M (2004) Abductor sign: a reliable new sign to detect unilateral non-organic paresis of the lower limb. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 75: 121-125.
  17. Ibrahim NM, Martino D, van de Warrenburg BP, Quinn NP, Bhatia KP, et al. (2009) The prognosis of fixed dystonia: A follow-up study. Parkinsonism Relat Disord 15: 592-597.
  18. Jankovic J, Vuong KD, Thomas M (2006) Psychogenic tremor: Long-term outcome. CNS Spectr 11: 501-508.
  19. Thomas M, Vuong KD, Jankovic J (2006) Long-term prognosis of patients with psychogenic movement disorders. Parkinsonism Relat Disord 12: 382-387.
  20. Crimlisk HL, Bhatia K, Cope H, David A, Marsden CD, et al. (1998) Slater revisited: 6 year follow up study of patients with medically unexplained motor symptoms. BMJ 316: 582-586.
  21. Feinstein A, Stergiopoulos V, Fine J, Lang AE (2001) Psychiatric outcome in patients with a psychogenic movement disorder: A prospective study. Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol Behav Neurol 14: 169-176.
  22. Mace CJ, Trimble MR (1996) Ten-year prognosis of conversion disorder. Br J Psychiatry 169: 282-288.
  23. Binzer M, Kullgren G (1998) Motor conversion disorder. A prospective 2- to 5-year follow-up study. Psychosomatics 39: 519-527.
  24. Ljungberg L (1957) Hysteria: a clinical, prognostic and genetic study. Acta Psychiat Neurol Scand Suppl 112: 1-162.
  25. Brown W, Pisetsky J (1954) Sociopsychologic factors in hysterical paraplegia. J Nerv Ment Dis 119: 283-298.
  26. Baker JHE, Silver Jr. (1987) Hysterical paraplegia. Jour of Neurol, Neurosur and Psychiatry 50: 375-382.
  27. American Psychiatric Association (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4thedn. Washington, DC, USA.
  28. Trieschmann RB, Stolov WC, Montgomery ED (1970) An approach tothe treatment of abnormal ambulation resulting from conversion reaction. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 51: 198-206.
  29. Green MA (1955) Neurological manifestations of conversion hysteria. Trans Am Neurol Assoc 86: 196-198.
  30. O’Connor PJ (1973) Hysterical reactions. Practitioner 210: 58-64.
  31. Stevens H (1968) Conversion hysteria: a neurologic emergency. Mayo Clin Proc 43: 54-64.
  32. Chodoff P, Lyons H (1958) Hysteria, the hysterical personality and hysterical conversion. Am J Psychiatry 114: 734-740.
  33. Ljungberg L (1957) Hysteria. Acta Psych Scand 112.
  34. Aring CD (1965) Observations on multiple sclerosis and conversion hysteria. Brain 88: 663-674.
  35. Tseng W-S (2001) Handbook of Cultural Psychiatry. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, USA, Page no: 855.
  36. Raskin M, Talbott JA, Meyerson AT (1966) Diagnosis of conversion reactions, predictive value of psychiatric criteria. JAMA 197: 530-534.
  37. Ford CV, Folks DG (1985) Conversion disorders: an overview. Psychosomatics 26: 371-383.
  38. Lazare A (1981) Current concepts in psychiatry: conversion symptoms. N Engl J Med 305: 745-748
  39. Thomas M, Vuong KD, Jankovic J (2006) Long-term prognosis of patients with psycogenic movement disorders. Parkinson Relat Disord 12: 382-387.
  40. Crimlisk HL, Bhatia K, Cope H, David A, Marsden CD, et al. (1998) Slater revisited: 6 year follow up study of patients with mediclly unexplained motor symptoms. BMJ 316: 582-586.
  41. Factor SA, Podskalny GD, Molho ES (1995) Psycogenic movement disorders: frequency, clinical profile, and characteristics. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 59: 406-412.
  42. McKeon A, Ahlskog JE, Bower JH, Josephs KA, Matsumoto JY (2009) Psychogenic tremor: long-term prognosis in patients with electrophysiologically confirmed disease. Mov Disord 24: 72-76.
  43. Munhoz RP, Zavala JA, Becker N, Teive HAE (2011) Cross-cultural influences on psychogenic movement disorders - a comparative review with a Brazilian series of 83 cases. Clin Neurol Neurosurg 113: 115-118.
  44. Feinstein A, Stergiopoulos V, Fine J, Lang AE (2001) Psychiatric outcome in patients with a psycogenic movement disorder: a prospective study. Neuropsychiatry Neuropsycol Behav Neurol 14: 169-176.
  45. Knutsson E, Martensson A (1985) Isokinetic measurements of muscle strength in hysterical paresis. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 61: 370-374.
  46. Mace CJ, Trimble MR (1996) Ten-year prognosis of conversion disorder. Br J Psychiatry 169: 282-288.
  47. Couprie W, Wijdicks EF, Rooijmans HG, van Gijn J (1995) Outcome in conversion disorder: A follow-up study. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 58: 750-752.
  48. Teasell RW, Shapiro AP (1994) Strategic-behavioral intervention in the treatment of chronic nonorganic motor disorders. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 73: 44-50.
  49. Hurwitz T, Kosaka B (2001) Primary psychiatric disorders in patients with conversion. Journal of Depression and Anxiety 4: 4-10.
  50. Stone J (2005) Systematic review of misdiagnosis of conversion symptoms and “hysteria”. BMJ 331: 989
  51. Nielsen G, Stone J, Matthews A, Brown M, Sparks C, et al. (2015) Physiotherapy for functional motor disorders: a consensus recommendation. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 86: 1113-1119.
  52. Gelauff J, Stone J, Edwards M, Carson A (2014) The prognosis of functional (psychogenic) motor symptoms: a systematic review. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 85: 220-226.
  53. McKenzie P, Oto M, Russell A, Pelosi A, Duncan R (2010) Early outcomes and predictors in 260 patients with psychogenic nonepileptic attacks. Neurology 74: 64-69.

Citation: Fizzotti G, Fassina G, Pirola V, Tronconi L (2021) Conversion Disorder and Spinal cord Injury: Case report. J Clin Stud Med Case Rep 8: 0113.

Copyright: © 2021  Gabriella Fizzotti, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Herald Scholarly Open Access is a leading, internationally publishing house in the fields of Sciences. Our mission is to provide an access to knowledge globally.

© 2023, Copyrights Herald Scholarly Open Access. All Rights Reserved!