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Study Finds Evidence Supporting a Trauma Subtype of Functional Neurological Disorder

Key findings

  • This study asked whether 78 patients with functional neurological disorder (FND) differed in their symptom severity and physical health, stratifying them by probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), moderate-to-severe childhood abuse, or neglect
  • The 33 patients with probable PTSD who scored high on the PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 reported significantly increased FND symptom severity and decreased physical health compared to those without probable PTSD
  • The 46 participants with moderate-to-severe childhood abuse per the abuse subscales of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire reported increased FND symptom severity compared with those who scored low
  • Stratification by moderate-to-severe childhood neglect based on the neglect subscales of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire did not relate to either patient-reported FND symptom severity or physical health scores
  • These data indicate the possibility of a clinically meaningful trauma subtype of FND categorized by probable comorbid PTSD and/or a history of moderate-to-severe childhood abuse

Not all patients with functional neurological disorder (FND) report adverse life events. According to the DSM-5, a proximal stressor is not required to diagnose FND. However, a half-dozen cohort studies have reported positive ties between the magnitude of previously experienced adverse life events and the severity of FND symptoms.

In Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital report evidence for a clinically significant trauma subtype of FND, based on the high symptom burden of comorbid PTSD or childhood abuse, and the low physical health of comorbid PTSD.

The authors are Sara Paredes-Echeverri, MD, a fellow in the Functional Neurological Disorder Unit and Research Group, Andrew J. Guthrie, a research assistant in the same group, and David L. Perez, MD, MMSc, founder and director of the Functional Neurological Disorders Treatment Program in the Department of Neurology and Department of Psychiatry.


The researchers prospectively recruited 78 adults (68% female; mean age 43; mean illness duration 4 years) who had been diagnosed with FND and attended the outpatient FND Unit at Mass General between 2014 and 2020. 56 had functional movement disorder, 34 had functional seizures, and 12 had both.

Participants were stratified according to three self-report measures:

  • The PTSD Checklist for DSM-5—33 participants had a total score ≥33, indicative of probable PTSD
  • The abuse subscales of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire—46 participants had scores indicating moderate to severe abuse (≥13 for emotional abuse, ≥10 for physical abuse, and/or ≥8 for sexual abuse)
  • The neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire—33 participants had scores indicating moderate-to-severe neglect (≥15 for emotional neglect and/or ≥10 for physical neglect)

The participants also completed three self-report measures of FND symptom severity and a measure of physical health:

  • Somatoform Dissociation Questionnaire-20 (SDQ-20)
  • Conversion Disorder subscale of the Screening for Somatoform Symptoms–7 (SOMS:CD)
  • Patient Health Questionnaire–15 (PHQ-15; measures functional somatic symptoms)
  • Physical health subscales of the Short Form Health Survey–36 (SF-36)


FND symptom severity and physical health measures were significantly different between FND patients stratified by PTSD or abuse:

  • FND-PTSD—All three symptom severity scores were significantly increased, and the SF-36 physical health scores were significantly decreased in the high-scoring group compared with the low-scoring group
  • FND-Abuse—The SDQ-20 and PHQ-15 scores (symptom severity measures) were significantly increased in the high-scoring group
  • FND-Neglect—The high- and low-scoring groups did not significantly differ in symptom severity or physical health scores

Implications for Psychotherapy

Framing a trauma subtype of FND has potential implications for treatment, especially psychotherapy. A trauma subtype could benefit from treatment modalities that have been piloted in FND like prolonged exposure therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness training have all been piloted in FND populations, and other skills-based psychotherapies.

Increased efforts to recognize and research the FND trauma subtype might increase success in pairing a given patient with FND to the psychotherapy most likely to benefit them.

Learn more about the Functional Neurological Disorders (FND) Treatment Program

Learn more about research in the Department of Neurology

Related topics


David L. Perez, MD, MMSc, Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, and colleagues recently reviewed the theory of constructed emotion and posit that deficits in the brain's predictive process of constructing emotion categories are integral to the pathogenesis of functional neurological disorder.


David L. Perez, MD, MMSc, director of the Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) Treatment Program, discusses how consultation and treatment for FND, a condition that sits between neurology and psychiatry, can be accessed through telemedicine and virtual technologies.