Original Research

The spectrum of functional neurological disorders: A retrospective analysis at a tertiary hospital in South Africa

Lavanya Naidoo, Ahmed I. Bhigjee
South African Journal of Psychiatry | Vol 27 | a1607 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajpsychiatry.v27i0.1607 | © 2021 Lavanya Naidoo, Ahmed I. Bhigjee | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 12 August 2020 | Published: 19 April 2021

About the author(s)

Lavanya Naidoo, Department of Neurology, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
Ahmed I. Bhigjee, Department of Neurology, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa


Background: Functional neurological disorders (FNDs) are commonly encountered in practice; however, there is a paucity of data in Africa.

Aim: To identify and describe the clinical profile of patients presenting with FNDs, underlying medical and psychiatric diagnoses and review the investigation and management of these patients.

Setting: Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital (IALCH), a tertiary-level hospital in Durban, South Africa.

Methods: A retrospective chart review and descriptive analysis were performed over a 14-year period (2003–2017) on cases meeting the study criteria.

Results: Of 158 subjects, the majority were female (72.8%), had a mean age of 32.8 years, were single (63.3%), unemployed (56.3%) and of black African ethnicity (64.6%). The most common clinical presentation was sensory impairment (57%) followed by weakness (53.2%) and seizures (38.6%). Inconsistency was the most frequent examination finding (16.5%). Medical conditions were identified in half of the study population (51.3%), with hypertension (22.2%) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) (17.2%) being most common. Of patients with a psychiatric diagnosis (55.1%), 25.3% had depression. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was the most frequently performed investigation (36.1%). The majority of patients received psychotherapy (72%) and most had not shown improvement (55.3%) at a median follow-up of 2 months, whilst 17% had deteriorated.

Conclusion: Functional neurological disorders were most frequently diagnosed in young unmarried females, of black African ethnicity. Family history, personal exposure to a neurological illness and certain socioeconomic factors may be potential risk factors. Sensory impairment was the most common clinical phenotype. Further studies are needed to better understand and manage FNDs in the South African context.


functional neurological disorders; conversion disorder; somatisation disorder; psychiatric diagnosis; African ethnicity


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Crossref Citations

1. Stigma in functional neurological disorder (FND) – A systematic review
Caoimhe McLoughlin, Laura McWhirter, Katerina Pisegna, Marina A.J. Tijssen, Lineke M. Tak, Alan Carson, Jon Stone
Clinical Psychology Review  vol: 112  first page: 102460  year: 2024  
doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2024.102460