Psychogenic seizures/ Non-epileptic events

Nitin K. Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10065

 Non-epileptic events

Non-epileptic events are paroxysmal episodes that resemble and are often misdiagnosed as epileptic seizures. Non-epileptic events can be further of two kinds

Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES)

Non epileptic but not psychogenic (“physiologic”) event

Non-epileptic but not psychogenic (physiologic) events: examples include

  • Tremors
  • Myoclonus which is not cortical (segmental/ spinal)
  • Dystonia
  • Dyskinesias
  • Parasomnias: sleep walking, nocturnal panic attacks, nightmares, sleep terrors
  • Syncope
  • Complicated migraine
  • Transient ischemic attacks
  • Cataplexy
  • Startle induced phenomena

 Psychogenic non-epileptic events

Multiple terminology: pseudoseizures, nonepileptic seizures, nonepileptic events, and psychogenic non-epileptic seizures.

 By definition PNES are psychogenic (psychological) in origin.

Can be

  • a form of conversion disorder or more broadly somatoform disorder—these are involuntary 
  • a form of malingering or factitious disorder—these are voluntary


Frequency/ sex ratio and age of onset

  • Up to one in five patients with apparently medical intractable epilepsy referred to epilepsy centres.
  • Incidence and prevalence varies in different countries: likely on account of differences in social and cultural norms.
  • More frequent in women as compared to men.
  • Typical age of onset is young adulthood


 Making the diagnosis

Misdiagnosis is common!!!

Patients present with history of uncontrolled seizures/ typical events inspite of

multiple inpatient admissions

multiple physicians

multiple anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs)

multiple tests

Making the diagnosis

  • Good history forms the backbone
  • History of typical event
  • From patient
  • From family/ caregiver/bystander

Points to consider:

Does the event occur out of sleep or do the events always occur during daytime when people are around

Specific triggers that are unusual for epilepsy: events are clearly precipitated by emotional stress (“I become angry and then shake”)

Circumstances in which attacks occur: around an audience (family, social events)

Details of the typical event: motor movements characteristics that are inconsistent with epileptic seizures: side-to-side shaking of the head, bilateral asynchronous trashing movements which are out of phase, weeping, verbalization and arching of the back (pelvic thrusting), eyes are closed and cannot be pried open.

History of other coexisting psychogenic conditions: fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, IBS.

Good psychosocial history: depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders (hysterical personality), family dynamics.

History of sexual abuse is specially important.

 Making the diagnosis


 VIDEO-EEG study is the gold standard

  • Helps to make an electroclinical correlation: capture a typical event on the video and interpret the electrographic correlate.
  • No change in the background EEG during the clinical event.
  • Clinical event is inconsistent with known seizure semiology: event starts-stops-then starts again, awareness is preserved in spite of bilateral motor convulsive activity.

 If Video-EEG facility is unavailable: routine EEG, ambulatory EEG, extended EEG—with suggestibility—lower yield

Imaging studies may or may not be normal: correlate the MRI/ CT with the history

Blood tests: prolactin (increased for about 30 minutes after a generalized convulsion)—impractical, hence not too useful.


Not easy!!!

patients frequently do not accept their diagnosis (” I am not crazy” ” I shall see another doctor”)

hence the way one delivers/explains the diagnosis to patients and their families is an art: some physicians are blunt, others are more vague or mask their words

Patients may or may not be agreeable to seeing a psychiatrist

  • Assure continuity of care
  • Be supportive
  • Be non confrontational


Other issues:

can AEDs be tapered off?

Does the patient have co-existing true seizures?

So your doctor may get other professionals involved: social workers, psychiatrists




  • Not all patients become “seizure”/spell free—many in fact do not
  • Males become spell free more than females
  • If they have a previous psychiatric diagnosis or some motive like disability/ unresolved marital stress—they shall not become spell free
  • Events may become less dramatic—less hospitalizations or visits to the doctor
  • They may be lost to follow up and find another doctor

2 thoughts on “Pseudoseizures

  1. Dear Dr Nitin Sethi,
    I clearly remember seeing a case of Epilepsia partialis continua
    which was referred after a complete neurological exam and subsequently treated on a psychological basis.
    How common is that?

  2. Dear Ruth,
    there is no age limit per se for someone to have non-epileptic events/ pseudoseizures. That said one should be wary in diagnosing pseudoseizures in the extremes of age (very young and the very old). Children frequently manifest abnormal behaviors and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and dementias can at times mimic non-epileptic events.

    Personal Regards,
    Nitin Sethi, MD

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