Imagine that you got into a car crash and got bad whiplash. Your body is still functioning fine, but you are feeling a little stiff. You become stressed out that you are in slight pain. The next day you wake up and you have no sensation in your legs and are paralyzed. Is it all in your head? It may be. The mind and body are much more connected than many may think. The mind can cause bodily symptoms and malfunctions without any physical medical cause. When this happens to a person, the person is experiencing conversion disorder. Conversion disorder is a mental disorder when distress manifests into physical symptoms without any physical cause at all. Patients with this disorder can have tremors, trouble balancing, weakness or numbness in their arms or legs, vision problems, swallowing issues, slurred speech, and some hearing loss.
Patients even go blind, become deaf or mute and even become paralyzed without any medical cause at all. There is absolutely no physical pathology to account for the malfunction. There has been lengthy history of symptoms of conversion disorder where there is no physical cause linked to the symptoms. The oldest medical document ever discovered, Eber Papyrus, is where the first documented cases of what is now known as Conversion Disorder and it dates way back to ancient Egypt around 1900 BC. The Eber Papyrus describes seizures, and suffocation type symptoms in its records. Since women mainly had these symptoms, the Egyptians believed that the position of the woman’s uterus caused these symptoms. They treated women with these conversion symptoms by using aromas and spices as they believed this helped move their uterus.
The first physician to create a term for conversion symptoms was Hippocrates, the term he created to describe conversion symptoms was “hysteria”. He created the term hysteria in the late 5th century BC. The word hysteria comes from the Greek word hysterika, which means uterus. Hippocrates had a different belief about why the uterus moved in women. He believed women’s uteruses wandered when they lacked a normal and healthy sexual life. Hysteria was treated how the ancient Egyptians treated conversion symptoms during this time in history. Hysteria was treated by using pleasant aromas and spices placed in the opposite direction that the uterus moved. Four centuries later, in 1st century AD, Aulus Celsus belived that pleasant aromas were ineffective in treating hysteria. Soranus thought that exercise, massages, and hot baths were the most effective treatment and prevention methods for women’s diseases, this included hysteria.
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Patients were treated for hysteria by encouraging them to have an active sex life, using pleasant aromas and following Soranus’ methods of treatment until the beginning of the 13th century. In the 13th century, it was written that women were the cause of the disease, instead of being the patient that is in need of treatment. St. Thomas Aquinas often would express how women should not exist, how women are just men who failed, and how women are the consequence of sin. He would state that older women are evil and witches who work with demons. Mental illnesses were then viewed as a tie between women and the devil, and Exorcism was used to treat patients as a cure for the disorder. In the late 13th and 14th centuries, Hysteria was often mistaken with witchcraft because physicians could not explain what causes the disorder.
Exorcism was then used as punishment and not a cure for the disorder. During the 1600s, Thomas Willis was the first person to realize that hysteria was actually due to the brain and nervous system. Hysteria was then seen more medically. In the 19th century different theories recognized that the brain and nervous system were involved in hysteria. Freud believed that stress caused the symptoms, and the brain subconsciously converted the stress into physical symptoms to relieve the patient’s anxiety. Freud then created the term “conversion disorder” for the condition.(Lack, 2016) Freud was the first person to diagnose and treat conversion disorder when symptoms were understood as being related to the brain. Freud used hypnosis and psychoanalysis to treat conversion disorder.
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