What is a Functional Disorder?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2019
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A functional disorder is a medical condition where one or more body functions are abnormal but the problem does not appear to have a detectable organic cause, instead originating in stress or psychological issues. Functional disorders can be challenging to diagnose and treat, and may require input from several medical practitioners to ensure the patient gets appropriate help. It is important to be aware that while the causes may be psychological, these symptoms are not made up, and the patient is experiencing a real physiological problem even if the cause is difficult to pin down.

A common example of a functional disorder is chronic pain with no known cause. Some people develop chronic pain in response to inflammation or injury, and in their cases, the origins of the condition are easy to understand. Other people may experience chronic pain without a clear cause. They do not have an underlying disease or history of injury that might explain the pain, but the experience of pain is authentic and the patient experiences relief from analgesia, electrical nerve stimulation, and other measures.

Some psychiatric conditions can be associated with a functional disorder. Patients with depression may experience symptoms like extreme pain or joint soreness, or fatigue, without a clear physiological cause like injury or lack of sleep. People can also experience changes in brain function in conjunction with a psychological problem, even though that condition is not necessarily known to cause brain abnormalities.


Within certain medical specialties, the term “functional disorder” may be used in different ways, and this can cause confusion. For orthopedic surgeons, such disorders represent congenital malformations of bone and surrounding tissues, and do have an origin, in the form of a problem with development. When they use the term, they do not mean that a patient has acquired a medical problem with no known cause.

It can be possible to treat a functional disorder without ever narrowing down the cause, and in some cases, doctors may attribute conditions with potential organic causes to unknown sources because the focus is on treatment, rather than finding out why the patient developed the condition in the first place. For patients who are not sure about what a doctor means when she uses this term, it can be helpful to ask for clarification. This may also be important for patients who want to make sure they take appropriate steps to avoid future episodes of disease or impaired function.


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