Case Reports

28-year-old woman • weakness • anxiety • altered mental status • Dx?

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► Weakness
► Anxiety
► Altered mental status




A 28-year-old woman with an extensive psychiatric history—including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and recent postpartum depression—presented with a chief complaint of right leg weakness. She stated this weakness had begun 4 days earlier. It occurred episodically and was preceded by tingling and cramping sensations. Each episode lasted a couple of minutes and spontaneously resolved. Associated with it, she experienced slurred speech and altered mentation. There was no loss of consciousness and no pain. A panic attack usually followed, consisting of feelings of impending doom, rapid breathing, palpitations, and nausea.

She had 3 prior diagnostic evaluations for this same chief complaint, twice in an emergency department (ED) and once with her primary care physician. These evaluations included lab work and extensive head imaging, which demonstrated no acute intracranial pathology. At each previous presentation, the diagnosis was an exacerbation of her anxiety disorder, and she was treated with lorazepam.

At the current presentation, her vital signs were stable. Examination revealed a notably anxious patient. She repeatedly expressed concern that she might have a brain tumor or some other deadly disease, as she had a family history of brain cancer. Her physical exam was entirely normal, including normal strength, sensation, and reflexes in all extremities.

Further head imaging (computed tomography, CT angiography, and magnetic resonance imaging of the brain) failed to reveal an etiology of her symptoms. With no clear organic cause, her medical providers again suspected an anxiety or panic episode. She was given reassurance, and an outpatient neurology consult was arranged.


One week later, at her outpatient neurology appointment, an electroencephalogram (EEG) was performed. Following photic stimulation, the EEG showed multiple right- and left-hemisphere foci of cortical hyperexcitability including a subtle sharp component (see FIGURE). Immediately following the longest of these episodes, the patient expressed a sense of anxiety and an altered sensorium similar to her prior presentations.

EEG revealed cortical hyperexcitability

The EEG findings, in addition to the postictal anxiety symptoms and clinical history, were all important components that led the treating neurologist to the diagnosis of localization-related (focal) epilepsy.1 The patient was started on oxcarbazepine, a first-line anti-epileptic medication used in the treatment of focal epilepsy.2 She is being followed by a neurologist regularly and after optimizing her anti-epileptic medication, is no longer having seizures.


The difficulty of this case stems from the atypical presentation of the patient’s seizures. The key step to the correct diagnosis was a neurological consultation and an ensuing EEG. However, the patient received a vast spectrum of care, including multiple work-ups, prior to a conclusive diagnosis—which highlights an important issue health care providers must address.

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