How psychogenic is dystonia? Views from past to present

Brain. 2010 May;133(Pt 5):1552-64. doi: 10.1093/brain/awq050. Epub 2010 Mar 28.


In the last few centuries, there has been a constant sway between organic and psychogenic explanations for dystonia. In the current study, we investigate this history, assuming the perspective of a spectrum from organic to psychogenic, between which ideas were moving. We have focussed on (i) primary generalized dystonia, (ii) cervical dystonia, (iii) writer's cramp and (iv) fixed dystonia related to complex regional pain syndrome. We have studied medical texts published since the 19th century and their references. Jean-Martin Charcot advocated the concept of hysteria, disorders in which, besides predisposition, environmental factors were involved in their pathogenesis. Sigmund Freud introduced psychoanalysis as an explanatory therapy for psychic disorders. Previous theories, together with the lack of an organic substrate for dystonia, made a strong case for psychogenic explanations. Consequently, many dystonia patients were told that they suffered from psychological conflicts and were treated for them. However, after the description of new hereditary cases in the 1950s, the limited efficacy of psychotherapy in torsion dystonia, the effects of surgical treatments and the lesion studies in the 1960s, more physicians became convinced of the organic nature. The culminating point was the discovery of the DYT1 gene in 1997. In the meantime, experts had already convinced the neurological community that cervical dystonia and writer's cramp were focal dystonias, i.e. minor forms of generalized dystonia, and therefore organic disorders. In contrast, the pathophysiology of fixed dystonia related to complex regional pain syndrome remained controversial. Knowledge of this history, which played on the border between neurology and psychiatry, is instructive and reflects the difficulty in discriminating between them. Today, new insights from functional imaging and neurophysiological studies again challenge the interpretation of these disorders, while the border between psychogenic and organic has become more blurred. Abnormalities of sensorimotor integration and cortical excitability that are currently supposed to be the underlying cause of dystonia bring us back to Sherringtonian physiology. We suggest that this may lead to a common explanation of the four afflictions of which we have traced the history.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Complex Regional Pain Syndromes / complications
  • Dystonia / etiology*
  • Dystonia / history
  • Dystonic Disorders
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / complications*
  • Mental Disorders / history
  • Neurology / history
  • Neurology / trends*
  • Torticollis