Physical precipitating factors in functional movement disorders

J Neurol Sci. 2014 Mar 15;338(1-2):174-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jns.2013.12.046. Epub 2014 Jan 8.


Background: A traditional explanation for functional (psychogenic) neurological symptoms, including functional movement disorders (FMD), is that psychological stressors lead to unconsciously produced physical symptoms. However, psychological stressors can be identified in only a proportion of patients. Patients commonly reported a physical event at onset of functional symptoms. In this study, we aim to systematically describe physical events and surrounding circumstances which occur at the onset of FMD and discuss their potential role in generation of functional symptoms.

Methods: We recruited 50 consecutive patients from a specialized functional movement disorders clinic. Semi-structured interviews provided a retrospective account of the circumstances in the 3 months prior to onset of the FMD. Questionnaires to assess mood disturbance and life events were also completed.

Results: Eleven males and 39 females were recruited. Forty (80%) patients reported a physical event shortly preceding the onset of the FMD. The FMD occurred after an injury in 11 patients and after an infection in 9. Neurological disorders (n=8), pain (n=4), drug reactions (n=3), surgery (n=3) and vasovagal syncope (n=2) also preceded the onset of the functional motor symptom. 38% of patients fulfilled criteria for a panic attack in association with the physical event.

Conclusions: In our cohort, physical events precede the onset of functional symptoms in most patients with FMD. Although historically neglected in favour of pure psychological explanation, they may play an important role in symptoms development by providing initial sensory data, which along with psychological factors such as panic, might drive subsequent FMD.

Keywords: Attention; Functional movement disorders; Injury; Life events; Panic; Physical precipitating.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Expectancy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Movement Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Movement Disorders / psychology*
  • Pain / etiology*
  • Precipitating Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires