Functional neurologic disorders and related disorders

Victor W Mark MD (Dr. Mark of the University of Alabama at Birmingham has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Originally released April 18, 2001; last updated December 13, 2018; expires December 13, 2021

This article includes discussion of psychogenic neurologic disorders, functional neurologic disorder, functional movement disorder, conversion disorder, and hysteria. The foregoing terms may include synonyms, similar disorders, variations in usage, and abbreviations.


Several behavioral disorders are related by (1) their resemblance to other, more familiar neurologic disorders; (2) lack of well-established biomarkers (eg, structural lesions on brain imaging studies, seizure waveforms on EEGs); and (3) aggravation of symptoms with the patient s attention to the disorder. However, the features and causes for these disorders are very different among themselves. This topic reviews functional neurologic disorder, Munchausen syndrome, Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and Ganser syndrome.

Key points


• Functional neurologic disorders are commonly encountered in general neurologic practices and, hence, knowing their manifestations and treatment is crucial for clinical care.


• The disturbance is involuntary, yet at the same time it can be controlled by the patient intermittently.


• Despite being self-controllable, the disturbance is generally disabling unless expert professional care is provided.


• There is no consistent association between functional neurologic disorder and either posttraumatic emotional stress or sexual abuse.


• Functional neurologic disturbances disorder responds best to empathetic concern by the clinician; demonstration that the disorder lacks a structural or permanent etiology; explanation that it can be improved with distraction; and guided attempts to reduce triggers of onset. Cognitive behavioral therapy, combined with physical therapy when warranted, is emerging as a successful intervention.


• Although most forms of functional neurologic disorder are relatively benign, Munchausen syndrome by proxy (the false reporting of illness by caregivers of dependent individuals) demands rapid intervention.

Historical note and terminology

The term "hysteria" was originally applied to diverse female fluctuating behavioral disorders that were attributed from classical times to a "wandering uterus" (Zimmer 2004). Offray de La Mettrie, for example, published in 1738 an account of episodic catalepsy (waxy immobility of the limbs) in a woman that he attributed to hysteria arising from amenorrhea (Walusinski 2012). Eighteenth century treatments for hysteria were radical and untested, including bloodletting, beatings, diet, fresh air, and writing (Meek 2013). In the 19th century the term “hysteria” came to specify functional disorders following the impression that primarily women simulate medical disorders for secondary gain. In contrast, men were thought to be more susceptible to hypochondriasis, the preoccupation with diverse bodily complaints (Crimlisk and Ron 1999). In 1859, Briquet published a landmark study that used "hysteria" to describe symptoms affecting diverse bodily systems. Functional disorders were subsequently emphasized by the works of Charcot, Freud, and Janet (Crommelinck 2014).

Reynolds published in 1869 a prescient overview of disorders of motor control and sensation that appeared to stem from an ideological fixation and were amenable to compassionate behavioral retraining (Reynolds 1869). Reynolds rejected terming such patients “hysteric” as the term was used at the time. In 1888 Blocq comprehensively described a case series of the acute inability to stand and walk despite full motor control of the legs while supine (which he termed “astasia-abasia,” a term that continues today) (Okun and Koehler 2007). Although he doubted that the disturbance had a purely psychologic etiology, his pathophysiologic hypothesis—that marked emotional distress can aggravate cerebral inhibition over spinal walking mechanisms—is surprisingly similar to some current pathophysiologic hypotheses for functional disturbances (see below). Elsewhere, a good overview of the history of the recognition of functional seizures has been provided (LaFrance and Devinsky 2004). A surge of interest in functional neurologic disorders came with World War I, when European soldiers returned from combat with a variety of neurologic deficits without traumatic brain injury (Jones et al 2007; Linden and Jones 2013). At this time, these disorders were considered to be neurologic, even though their precise etiologies were unclear. However, the neurologic interest in the causes, physiological basis, and treatment of functional disorders became overshadowed, for the most part, by the advent of psychoanalysis (Crommelinck 2014). A return to interest in the neurophysiological basis of functional disorders began in the 1960s and continues to the present.

A wide variety of synonyms for these disorders have been used up to the present, which hampers understanding. These terms include hysteria, conversion disorder, medically unexplained disorder, psychogenic neurologic disorder, and pseudoseizure. Edwards and Bhatia emphatically recommend the term “functional neurologic disorder” on the grounds that patients find this less objectionable than rival terms (Stone et al 2002b; Edwards and Bhatia 2012), which helps to emphasize the reversibility of the disorder (Reuber et al 2005; Stone et al 2005). PubMed has shown a continually growing use of this term over the past decade.

"Somatization disorder" or "Briquet syndrome" is a variant of functional disorder in which nonspecific bodily complaints appear (eg, fatigue, insomnia, irritable bowel) without resembling specific neurologic disorders and without objective physiologic disturbance (Khouzam and Field 1999; Stone et al 2005). "Malingering" is the fully aware simulation of a medical disorder (frequently neurologic) for personal gain, particularly for money, material goods, or improved access to specific privileges (eg, transfer from jail). "Factitious disorder" is the willful simulation of a medical disorder without clear financial or opportunistic gain (Bauer and Boegner 1996). Instead, sufferers have a need for an enhanced feeling of control or attention. "Munchausen syndrome" is a variant of factitious disorder (often with diverse complaints), in which the patient undergoes frequent clinic or hospital evaluation, sometimes resulting in invasive, even injurious, testing or treatment. The term was coined by Asher (Asher 1951), who thought that the wide meanderings of afflicted patients from clinic to clinic and their elaborate health histories resembled the fantastic travels regaled by a fictitious character depicted by Raspe in 1785, Baron Munchausen (Pankratz 1986). (This individual was likely inspired by the real Baron Münchhausen; consequently, German spellings of this disorder also appear.) "Munchausen syndrome by proxy" refers to a caregiver's bearing false evidence of medical illness in another individual who is incompetent to represent himself (a child, in most cases described thus far) (Meadow 1977). Finally, Ganser syndrome is a controversial disorder that involves, among other features, the suggestion of simulated confabulation (Ganser 1898).

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