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SALT LAKE CITY — It used to be called "mass hysteria," and there are famous cases of it in centuries past. This condition, now known as conversion disorder, has links to many countries.
We only hear of conversion disorder when groups of people begin reacting with similar physical symptoms, but many more individuals have struggled to overcome something often thought of as mysterious, which makes it frightening.
Well-known cases of conversion disorder
More than a dozen teenage girls in upstate New York began exhibiting Tourette's syndrome-like symptoms several months ago. Investigations that include testing of ground water and air samples go forward, but a doctor treating most of them has diagnosed conversion disorder.
Parents are upset, and their teens are confused.
"You're telling me that I'm crazy? That it's all in my head? There's nothing wrong with me?" patients often say, according to Dr. John Speed, a physician of rehabilitation medicine at University Hospital.
"There is something wrong, and it's a very real problem," Speed said.
First known as mass hysteria, the disorder can manifest itself as a contagious group behavior.
"One of the risk factors for developing conversion disorder is actually being exposed to someone around you who has neurologic symptoms or conversion symptoms," Speed said.
There are famous cases throughout history:
- The Dancing Plague occurred in Strasbourg, France. in 1518. A woman began dancing in the streets. Days later, hundreds joined her. Many died of heart attacks, strokes or exhaustion.
- The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic happened in a small African village in 1962. Children in one school began laughing, and it spread through the area.
- The Soap Opera Hysteria happened in Portugal in May of 2006. Hundreds of students reported symptoms like the ones the characters in the country's most popular show were experiencing.
One of the risk factors for developing conversion disorder is actually being exposed to someone around you who has neurologic symptoms or conversion symptoms.
–Dr. John Speed
But the best-known possible case is that of the accusers in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Girls in a colonial Massachusetts accused adults of witchcraft.
"About half a century ago, Chadwick Hanson wrote a book on Salem that first broached the comparison between the behavior of young girls in Salem and modern diagnoses of hysteria," explained Eric Hinderaker, a professor of U.S History at the University of Utah.
Nineteen people were executed; others died in harsh prison conditions. Some of the accusers experienced seizure-like reactions, tics and verbal outbursts.
"The reports are they responded with extreme agony," Hinderaker said. "And so, then that would be taken as evidence that these accused ‘witches' were, in fact, in league with the devil."
Conversion disorder on an individual level
"I've been here about 23 years and I've probably seen about 200 to 250 folks with conversion disorder over the years," Speed said.
Speed has researched and written papers on the condition. He's found it affects individuals more often than groups, and men are affected as much as women.
I told my husband, ‘I feel like there's bubbles going off in my head. I went and laid down, and I was paralyzed — couldn't walk, couldn't talk, couldn't do anything.
–Beth, conversion disorder patient
MRI studies of patients show a conversion between two parts of the brain. "There's crosstalk between the emotional part of the brain and the motor part of the brain," Speed explained.
Beth describes herself as a very regular, happy, active wife and mother. About a year and a half ago, after dinner, she remembers feeling strange.
"I told my husband, ‘I feel like there's bubbles going off in my head,'" Beth recalled. "I went and laid down, and I was paralyzed — couldn't walk, couldn't talk, couldn't do anything."
She was rushed to the hospital, with everyone suspecting a massive stroke. But seven hours later, Beth was fine. However, it happened again and again.
"There were three-week periods of time where I couldn't walk or talk; and then maybe it would just click and I could talk for a couple of days, and then I would crash again and have another episode of full paralysis," Beth explained.
She had many diagnoses. Finally, calls to doctors on both the East and West coasts led her to Speed.
"I can't tell you how wonderful it was to come in and — not able to talk, not able to walk — to have him say, ‘We can help you.' It was huge, Beth said.
"What we do here in the rehab department of the U. is what's called a behavioral approach treatment," Speed explained. "It's a very simple principle, which is ‘un-learn the bad; re-learn the good stuff.'"
Conversion disorder is severe stress caused by an emotional crisis or scary incident that presents itself as a physical problem. Doctors treat both.
Beth had to relearn to walk and talk — a process that took just eight days.
"Dr. Speed discharged me and said, ‘You just went through the easy part.' And he was right," Beth said.
Counseling came next, and learning how to control stress.
"I've had decades of problems, and I'm understanding what I can do about it," Beth said. "And it's been freeing. It's been empowering. It's been a wonderful journey."