Dystonia is caused by incorrect signals from the brain to the affected body part but the causes for this are not yet fully understood. Functional dystonia is diagnosed when tests for known causes of a particular symptom such as epilepsy or stroke come back negative.

It is sometimes called psychogenic dystonia because clinicians have observed that in many cases there may be underlying psychological or psychiatric factors which contribute to the physical symptoms. As symptoms can sometimes improve when distraction techniques are used, this can unfortunately result in patients being told that they are making them up or imagining them.

Functional dystonia is nevertheless a real and disabling neurological disorder.

Many people with functional dystonia report that the problem is triggered by an event, often a physical illness or injury. In addition, many patients report a history of stress and psychological difficulty. It is possible that the combination of these two factors (or even one or the other on its own) causes the brain to learn an abnormal pattern of movement or posture which becomes ingrained in the system and occurs without the person's control.