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Prompt treatment for functional neurological disorder in children is highly effective

Functional neurological disorder, formerly called conversion disorder, involves the biological embedding of lived experience in the body and brain. This is the process whereby stress, the social environment, or early experience affects the body’s biological systems. The embedding culminates in stress-system activation or dysregulation and aberrant changes in neural network function. Patients with functional neurological disorder have neurologic symptoms such as limb weakness, tremors, gait difficulties, seizures, or cognitive problems that are not explained by traditional neurological disorders.

As many as a fifth of children and adolescents seen in pediatric neurology clinics are found to have functional neurological disorder. An estimated 63% to 95% of these patients can fully recover if they receive prompt diagnosis and proper treatment.

A treatment gap exists worldwide for pediatric patients with functional neurological disorder

Unfortunately, many children with functional neurological disorder do not receive the care they need. Kasia Kozlowska MD PhD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues explain the scarcity of treatment is global, in part "the result of long-standing stigma and ingrained belief that patients with functional neurological disorder do not suffer from a real ("organic") disorder and that they, therefore, do not require, or even deserve, treatment."

In a Perspectives article in Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Dr. Kozlowska and her colleagues describe the elements of a biopsychosocial mind–body program intervention they designed that has been successful for managing functional neurological disorder in children and adolescents.

A seven-component treatment program

Over almost 30 years, the Mind–Body Program for children with functional neurological disorder at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead has delivered inpatient care to hundreds of patients with functional neurological disorder. In collaboration with community-based clinicians, the program’s staff has also designed individualized treatment for hundreds of outpatients.

The authors say that although care is personalized, their interventions for functional neurological disorder always have seven elements: prompt medical/neurological assessment and diagnosis by a physician; triaging the referral for a holistic (biopsychosocial) assessment; a holistic, biopsychosocial assessment of the child and family; co-constructing a formulation with the child and family to identify factors that contribute to and maintain the child’s symptoms; assembling a personalized treatment plan; implementing the plan; and building resilience and preventing relapse. The article describes each of these elements in detail.

Most healthcare professionals working in pediatrics can easily add a functional neurological disorder-informed skill set to their current clinical practice, Dr. Kozlowska’s group notes:

  • Pediatricians and pediatric neurologists already have the skills necessary to diagnose functional neurological disorder: they simply need to learn to recognize the rule-in signs for functional neurological disorder and to practice communicating a functional neurological disorder diagnosis.
  • Physical therapists can shift their approach from a "musculoskeletal framework that focuses attention on the problem area" to a framework in which the patient’s attention is drawn away from the symptoms, with particular focus on building a therapeutic relationship, using play, and applying interventions in ways that address the problem indirectly.
  • Mental health clinicians already know how to conduct a biopsychosocial assessment and provide individual and family interventions; they just need to understand "the somatic narrative," the bottom-up approach to emotion regulation, and strategies for managing focus of attention.

Dr. Kozlowska and colleagues emphasize that functional neurological disorder is a positive diagnosis (rather than a diagnosis of exclusion) that should be made by a pediatrician, neurologist, neuropsychiatrist, family doctor, or other physician. "[C]linical interactions during the assessment process are, in themselves, a potentially valuable therapeutic intervention."

Source: News Release
Wolters Kluwer Health
March 9, 2023

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