Non epileptic seizures or pseudoseizures-what are they and what is to be done about them?
Nitin K Sethi, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
New York-Presbyterian Hospital
Weill Cornell Medical Center
New York, NY
I thought in this post of mine, I shall discuss pseudoseizures. As the name suggests pseudoseizures means “not true seizures”. We nowdays prefer to refer to them as non-epileptic events (NEE).
So what do we mean when we say someone has pseudoseizures? Let me illustrate with the aid of an example. A patient lets say Ms.XYZ comes to me for initial consultation for her seizure disorder. History is as follows. She has had 2 episodes where-in she was witnessed to have violent jerking movements of her arms and legs. First episode occurred in school after she got into a heated verbal argument with her best friend while the second occurred after a similar confrontation at home with her mother. None of these events were preceded by any aura. As per history she did not bite her tongue or have loss of bladder control though she says she felt tired after the events.
Hmm sounds suspicious for seizures you might rightly say. I tell her I would like to bring her into the hospital to do a video-EEG study to better characterize her seizure type (see my posts on seizure types at http://braindiseases.info). She agrees to the study.
EEG recording is initiated and is read as normal after 24 hours. The next day in the hospital, I tell her and her mother about the results of the normal EEG. A few hours after my discussion with the family, she is noted by the nursing staff to have a violent “seizure”. I review her EEG. On the camera I notice her to suddenly stiffen and then have violent out of phase (uncoordinated) flinging movements of the arms and legs. Her head moves from side to side and I overhear her yelling “too much, too much, let me go!!! let me go!!!). The event occurs while her mother and her best friend are by her bedside.
I look at the time locked EEG (EEG synchronized with the video in real time). While she is clinically having a “seizure”, her brain waves are normal (the brain is not having a seizure). A correct diagnosis of pseudoseizures (non-epileptic event) is made and she is discharged home with advise to follow up with a psychiatrist.
So what is a pseudoseizure?
1. It is not a true seizure but rather an episode or episodes which clinically look like seizures but are not accompanied by any EEG changes.
2. It usually has a psychological basis. In my experience I commonly see them in people who are passing through tremendous stress be it interpersonal relationships or at the job.
3. A person may have pseudoseizures to achieve a secondary gain (in the case of our patient, attention and love from her mother and best friend).
4. Pseudoseizures are not treated like seizures. These patients do not need anti-seizure medications. They rather at times need a psychiatrist to explore the underlying reasons for the NEE (conflicts in family etc).
5. Some patients who have true seizures (epilepsy) may also have pseudoseizures.