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Functional weakness is weakness of an arm or leg due to the nervous system not working properly. It is not caused by damage or disease of the nervous system. Patients with functional weakness experience symptoms of limb weakness which can be disabling and frightening such as problems walking or a ‘heaviness’ down one side, dropping things or a feeling that a limb just doesn’t feel normal or ‘part of them’. Functional weakness may also be described as functional neurological symptom disorder (FNsD), Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) or functional neurological symptoms. If the symptoms are caused by a psychological trigger, it may be diagnosed as 'dissociative motor disorder' or conversion disorder (CD).
To the patient and the doctor it often looks as if there has been a stroke or have symptoms of multiple sclerosis. However, unlike these conditions, with functional weakness there is no permanent damage to the nervous system which means that it can get better or even go away completely.
The diagnosis should usually be made by a consultant neurologist so that other neurological causes can be excluded. The diagnosis should be made on the basis of positive features in the history and the examination (such as Hoover's sign). It is dangerous to make the diagnosis simply because tests are normal. Neurologists usually diagnose wrongly about 5% of the time (which is the same for many other conditions.)
Many patients with functional weakness suffer from not being believed. Although psychological factors can be important for a some patients, for the majority of individuals the cause of their weakness has a physical trigger such as a virus, injury or other medical condition. The symptoms of functional weakness are real, and are as disabling and distressing as Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson's.
The most effective treatment is physiotherapy, however it is also helpful for patients to understand the diagnosis, and some may find CBT helps them to cope with the emotions associated with being unwell. For those with conversion disorder, psychological therapy is key to their treatment as it is emotional or psychological factors which are causing their symptoms.
Giveway weakness (also "give-away weakness", "collapsing weakness", etc.) refers to a symptom where a patient's arm, leg, can initially provide resistance against an examiner's touch, but then suddenly "gives way" and provides no further muscular resistance.