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Slater revisited: 6 year follow up study of patients with medically unexplained motor symptoms

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7131.582 (Published 14 February 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:582
  1. Helen L Crimlisk, research fellowa,
  2. Kailash Bhatia, senior lecturera,
  3. Helen Cope, senior lecturerb,
  4. Anthony David, professor of cognitive neuropsychiatryb,
  5. C David Marsden, professor of neurologya,
  6. Maria A Ron (M.RON{at}ion.ucl.ac.uk), professor of neuropsychiatrya
  1. a Institute of Neurology, London WC1N 3BG
  2. b Institute of Psychiatry, London SE5 8AF
  1. Correspondence to: Professor Ron
  • Accepted 3 October 1997

Abstract

Objective: To investigate psychiatric and neurological morbidity, diagnostic stability, and indicators of prognosis in patients previously identified as having medically unexplained motor symptoms.

Design: Follow up study.

Setting: National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London—a secondary and tertiary referral hospital for neurological disorders.

Subjects: 73 patients with medically unexplained motor symptoms admitted consecutively in 1989-91. 35 (48%) patients had absence of motor function (for example, hemiplegia) and 38 (52%) had abnormal motor activity (for example, tremor, dystonia, or ataxia).

Main outcome measures: Neurological clinical diagnosis at face to face reassessment by a neurologist and a psychiatric diagnosis after a standardised assessment interview—the schedule for affective disorders and schizophrenia—conducted by a psychiatrist.

Results: Good follow up data were available for 64 subjects (88%). Only three subjects had new organic neurological disorders at follow up that fully or partly explained their previous symptoms. 44/59 (75%) subjects had had psychiatric disorders; in 33 (75%) patients, the psychiatric diagnosis coincided with their unexplained motor symptoms. 31/59 (45%) patients had a personality disorder. Three subjects had developed new psychiatric illnesses at follow up, but in only one did the diagnosis account for the previous motor symptoms. Resolution of physical symptoms was associated with short length of symptoms, comorbid psychiatric disorder, and a change in marital status during follow up.

Conclusions: Unlike Slater's study of 1965, a low incidence of physical or psychiatric diagnoses which explained these patients' symptoms or disability was found. However, a high level of psychiatric comorbidity existed.

Key messages

  • Motor symptoms that remain unexplained medically despite thorough investigation are a common clinical problem, but the emergence of a subsequent organic explanation for these symptoms is rare

  • The prevalence of coexistent affective and anxiety disorders is high and many patients also have a personality disorder

  • Patients with a shorter duration of symptoms and coexistent anxiety or depression are likely to do better at follow up

  • Reinvestigation of these patients is both expensive and potentially dangerous and should be avoided where no clear clinical indication exists

Footnotes

    • Accepted 3 October 1997
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