Cases That Test Your Skills

Seizure-like episodes, but is it really epilepsy?

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Ms. N, age 12, experiences paroxysmal episodes of pain, weakness, and muscle spasms. She has no history of seizures, and an initial EEG is inconclusive. What could be causing these episodes?



CASE Increasingly frequent paroxysmal episodes

Ms. N, age 12, comes to the hospital for evaluation of paroxysmal episodes of pain, weakness, and muscle spasms. A neurologist who evaluated her as an outpatient had recommended a routine electroencephalogram (EEG); after those results were inconclusive, Ms. N’s mother brought her to the hospital for a 24-hour video EEG.

Ms. N has a history of asthma. She has no history of seizures or headache, but her mother has an unspecified seizure disorder that has been stable with antiepileptic medication for many years. Ms. N has no other family history of autoimmune or neurologic disorders.

Ms. N’s episodes began 6 months ago and have progressively increased in frequency from 5 to 12 episodes a day. She says that before she has an episode, she “ feels tingling in her fingers and mouth, and butterflies in her belly,” and then her “whole body clenches up.” She denies experiencing tongue biting, facial or extremity weakness, incontinence, or loss of consciousness during these episodes.

Shortly before her hospitalization, Ms. N had won a scholarship to attend an overnight art camp. Because her episodes were becoming more frequent and their etiology remained unclear, Ms. N and her mother decided it would be unsafe for her to attend, and that she should go to the hospital for evaluation instead.

EVALUATION Tough questions reveal answers

The pediatric team evaluates Ms. N. Her physical exam, laboratory values, and imaging are all within normal limits. Her neurologic exam demonstrates full strength, tone, and sensation in all extremities. All cranial nerves and reflexes are intact. No dysmorphic features or gait abnormalities are noted. All laboratory and imaging tests are normal, including complete blood cell count, electrolytes, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, glucose, creatine kinase, liver enzymes, urine drug screen, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) urine test, and head CT.

After the initial workup, the pediatric team consults the child and adolescent psychiatry team for a complete assessment of Ms. N due to concerns that a psychological component is contributing to her episodes. According to the psychosocial history obtained from Ms. N and her mother, Ms. N had experienced disrupted attachment, trauma, and loss. At age 5, Ms. N was temporarily removed from her mother’s custody after a fight between her mother and brother. At age 9, Ms. N’s stepfather, her primary father figure, died of a brain tumor.

Ms. N also has significant trauma stemming from her relationship with her biological father. Ms. N’s mother reports that her daughter was conceived during nonconsensual sexual intercourse. Ms. N did not have much contact with her biological father until 6 months ago, when he started picking her up at school and taking her to his home for several hours without permission or supervision. Afterwards, Ms. N confided to her mother and a teacher that her father sexually assaulted her during those visits.

Continue to: Ms. N and her mother...


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