When a seizure is not a seizure (pseudoseizures)

When a seizure is not a seizure (pseudoseizures)

Nitin K Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10065

The month of Feb finds me in New Delhi, India. I have been invited to present a talk on psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES). You may now be wondering what does that mean. Well that is what I plan to discuss in this post of mine. Let us look at the term again:

P–stands for psychogenic  meaning the event has a psychological basis to its existence.

NES–stands for non-epileptic seizure meaning the event is not a epileptic seizure.

So let me put it all together in simple language.  Let us assume our character for this short story is Michelle. Now Michelle is a 25-year-old young lady who is married to John. All looks great from outside. Michelle has a good job, a fun life in Manhattan and a good circle of friends. But all is not hunky dory. Michelle and John have been having some problems. John is verbally and lately physically abusive to her. Michelle feels trapped in a loveless marriage but sees no way out.

So one day Michelle and John are at a dinner party.  Seated at their table are few close friends as well as some strangers. As the main course is served, Michelle suddenly leans back, she utters a cry. Then her eyes are noticed to roll up.  John and Michelle’s friends quickly ease her to the ground. She is then noted to have vigorous side to side shaking movements of her head, asynchronous out of phase thrashing movements of her arms and legs. All this time her eyes are open and she is muttering help me, help me.

Michelle is rushed to the hospital where a doctor like me is called to consult on her.  What happened to Michelle?  Seizure or not a seizure, is the question. To help determine the etiology, her doctor orders a video-EEG study.  Michelle is admitted to the hospital and electrodes are pasted on the top of her head to record her brain waves (encephalogram). The encephalogram is time locked to the video camera mounted on the ceiling which records Michelle’s movements. Hence the name VIDEO-EEG.

So imagine Michelle. Sitting in bed, wires attached to her head, surrounded by friends, family and most importantly an extremely concerned John by her bedside. And then it happens again. A dramatic event where she yells a bone chilling cry and then shakes all over.  Now everyone wants to know what is plaguing Michelle.

So what did the video-EEG record?  Was it a seizure or not? Surprisingly when the EEG data is analysed, at the time when Michelle is having her “seizure” the EEG shows no change in the brain waves.  Meaning than Michelle is not having a true seizure, the event is non-epileptic.

Events such as the above are called PNES. They are psychogenic since they have a psychological basis to them. In Michelle’s case they likely reflect her struggles in her marriage and may be a sign for help. Some patients have psychogenic seizures/ pseudoseizures voluntary.  Meaning they might malinger a “seizure” for a secondary gain such as to get social security payments, to escape school and so forth.

PNES  are common and difficult to diagnose and treat.  As you may imagine patients are frequently misdiagnosed. Some are misdiagnosed as true seizures/ epilepsy and started on anti-convulsant drugs which have their own side-effects.  When one drug fails to stop the “seizure”, new drugs are tried.  So frequently these patients are on multiple anti-convulsants and their “seizures” still continue.

PNES do not stop till the underlying psychological issues are tackled. In Michelle’s case simply telling her that she does not have true seizures is not the end of the road. She needs to be referred to a psychiatrist and a therapist. Only then she may be cured.