Conversion and somatic symptom disorders are both categorised as somatic symptom and related disorders, previously termed somatoform disorders.
Somatic symptom and related disorders are psychiatric conditions where patients experience distressing physical symptoms that are not fully explained by other medical, neurological, or psychiatric disorders, as well as abnormal thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in response to these symptoms. They may result from psychological stress that is unconsciously (without awareness) expressed somatically, though the underlying cause is not fully understood.
Risk factors include being female, having a history of abuse or childhood difficulties, and having personality traits of alexithymia (difficulty expressing emotions) or neuroticism. Symptoms that persist with an external focus of control, and without awareness of the psychological and stress-related interplay, can lead to considerable functional impairment and distress.
Diagnosis is made by clinical interview, behavioural observation, and physical examination suggestive of pseudoneurological causes, or tests to rule out medical or neurological causes. The diagnosis should not be made purely on the basis of medically unexplained symptoms; rather, it should be based on evidence from the clinical examination and the patient’s abnormal thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in response to the medically unexplained symptoms.
Good doctor-patient relationships are essential for effective management. Treatment includes cognitive behavioural therapy and avoiding unnecessary medicines, tests, and procedures. Diagnosis and treatment of associated comorbid psychiatric conditions benefit overall functioning and recovery.
Long-term management involves interrupting perpetuating factors, maintaining the same doctor, and providing strategies for self-efficacy, distress tolerance, coping, and modulating the interaction of anxiety, stress, and physical symptoms.
Conversion and somatic symptom disorders are psychiatric conditions that fall under the somatic symptoms and related disorders category of the DSM-5. Somatic symptom and related disorders are those with distressing physical symptoms that are not fully explained by other medical, neurological, or psychiatric disorders (also known as somatisation).
Conversion disorder is characterised by voluntary motor or sensory function deficits that suggest neurological or medical conditions but are rather associated with clinical findings that are not compatible with such conditions. Somatic symptom disorder is characterised by one or more somatic symptoms that are distressing or result in significant disruption of daily life. To meet DSM-5 criteria, these patients must have excessive thoughts, feelings, or behaviours related to the somatic symptoms or associated health concerns as manifested by at least one of the following: disproportionate and persistent thoughts about the seriousness of one’s symptoms; persistently high levels of anxiety about health or symptoms; excessive time or energy devoted to these symptoms or health concerns. Importantly, even if any one somatic symptom is not continuously present, the state of being symptomatic is persistent (typically more than 6 months).
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
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Professor of Liaison Psychiatry
Leeds Institute of Health Sciences
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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
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University of California
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Yale School of Medicine
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