Medical Mysteries

Help me, nurse Goodheart! I can’t see!

Illustration: Josh Clark

Hysterical blindness is not just a bad TV plot twist.

We’ve all seen this story, or a variation, unfold on TV or in the movies. It’s a bit over the top but it’s still exciting. It goes something like this: Joe Hero has just seen something terribly traumatic. His life has been crushed. He’s devastated. Life, as he knows it, has been ruined. Suddenly, Joe walks into a wall and cries out: “I can’t see! I’ve gone blind.” Nurse Goodheart quickly rushes to Joe and comforts him. The kindly Dr. Wisdom diagnoses hysterical blindness. We’ll all worried about good old Joe.

Nurse Goodheart patiently cares for Joe until that magical day when Joe sits up in bed and shouts, “I can see again! Thanks to you, nurse Goodheart!” They then live happily ever after.

Corny? Of course it is, even to the point of being hokey. It’s so cornball that we tend to assume it couldn’t really ever happen.

We would be wrong. Hysterical blindness is indeed real and can happen. It is now known as conversion disorder and is a neurological or general medical condition that can cause someone to lose his or her ability to see—usually temporarily but permanently in rare cases.

There are many possible reasons for blindness but they usually are some type of psychological trauma, anxiety, or injury. Extreme emotions can cause the visual signals that go from a person’s eyes to his or her brain to cut off temporarily.

Cases are more common among young adults and females. Emotional ups and downs like depression and anxiety also prove to play a part in the cause of this disorder.

Conversion disorder is common in patients who have suffered abuse in their childhood. It is also common for people suffering other mental health problems to also suffer conversion disorder.

Fortunately, studies show that no neurological damage really occurs in cases of hysterical blindness. The pupils of the eyes work normally, reacting to light as they normally would.

In her blog, psychiatrist “Dr. Sanity” relates the story of a 16-year-old girl who temporarily goes blind after seeing her mother in bed with a man who was not the girl’s father. Dr. Sanity brings in a bit of Sigmund Freud: “You see, this was a classic Freudian case, the kind that he used to write about with all the obligatory symbolism (e.g., the blindness symbolized the fact that she didn’t want to ‘see’ or ‘look’ at something that was too painful for her to accept).”

Still, we need to remember that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

“What Does Hysterical Blindness Mean?” //
“What Is Hysterical Blindness?”, Health & Beauty, Optometry. //
“Hysterical Blindness in Children, Report of Two Cases,” by Dr. Ernest Wolfe and Dr. George S. Lachman, April 1938, JAMA Pediatrics, JAMA Network. //
“A Classic Case of Hysteria,” Dr. Sanity, drsanity.blogspot, Feb. 3, 2005. //

About the author

Fred Hilton

Fred Hilton spent thirty-six years as the chief public relations officer/spokesman for James Madison University in Virginia and ten years prior as a reporter and editor for The Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Virginia. He is now happily retired in The Villages with his interior designer wife, Leta, their Cadillac Escalade golf cart, and their dog, Paris. (Yes, that makes her Paris Hilton).

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