It's very common for people to experience physical symptoms of mental distress, like shaking when you're nervous. When these symptoms persist despite the lack of any external stressors or medically determinable disease or illness, doctors sometimes diagnose conversion disorder.
Conversion disorder—also known as functional neurological disorder—can significantly interfere with your ability to complete your activities of daily living. If symptoms from your conversion disorder have kept you from working full-time for at least a year, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
Conversion disorder is characterized by neurological symptoms that can't be explained by anything physically wrong with the brain. But that doesn't mean that the symptoms aren't real, or that they don't cause problems with functioning.
Conversion disorder affects motor functions (movement) and the senses. Common symptoms include:
Doctors don't fully understand conversion disorder yet, but they think that it may be triggered by a traumatic event, such as abuse. Conversion disorder is a type of somatoform disorder, the term for a class of mental illnesses that cause physical symptoms without a known etiology (cause).
When determining whether any condition is disabling, the Social Security Administration (SSA) focuses more on how symptoms from the condition affect the ability to work, rather than any specific diagnosis. Somebody whose conversion disorder causes mild difficulty swallowing isn't likely to have much trouble working, while another person with severe hand tremors might find it hard to grasp small tools or use a keyboard.
Once you submit your application ("claim") for disability benefits, your claim will be sent to Disability Determination Services, a state agency that helps the SSA review claims for disability benefits. There, a claims examiner will gather evidence from your doctors, counselors, therapists, and any other professional who has documented symptoms of your conversion disorder. The claims examiner will then contact a medical consultant to help determine your residual functional capacity (RFC).
What Your RFC Contains. Your RFC is a set of limitations that reflects the most you're capable of doing in a work environment. For example, somebody whose conversion disorder causes them to lose balance easily might have an RFC that restricts them from jobs working at heights or around heavy machinery. Or somebody whose hands shake intensely may have an RFC limiting their ability to perform tasks involving fine manipulation.
How Social Security Uses Your RFC. After reviewing all the available medical evidence, the SSA will compare your current RFC with the physical and mental demands of your past work. If the claims examiner decides that you can't go back to any of your old jobs, they'll then determine whether any other jobs exist that you can do, despite the limitations in your RFC.
After the examiner makes a decision about whether you can work full-time, they will send you a decision in the mail. Not many disability claims are awarded at this initial stage of the disability determination process, so it's likely that you'll receive a denial letter, but you can appeal the denial before later requesting a hearing with an administrative law judge.
Getting approved for disability benefits on the basis of conversion disorder can be tricky. Because conversion disorder doesn't have any apparent physical cause, showing that you have the disorder at all—without blood work, lab tests, or medical imaging—can be an uphill battle. And many doctors can mistake conversion disorder for malingering ("faking it"), which can damage your disability claim.
You can increase your chances of getting disability for conversion disorder by taking the following steps:
If you're thinking of applying for disability benefits based on conversion disorder—or you've received a denial letter from Social Security and want to appeal—consider hiring an experienced disability attorney. Even well-documented cases of conversion disorder can be a hard sell to a claims examiner or administrative law judge, and a lawyer will know which arguments have the best chances of success.
For more information, see our articles on hiring a disability lawyer.
Updated May 15, 2023