Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) are a physical manifestation of a psychological disturbance. They are characterized by episodes of altered subjective experience and movements that can resemble epilepsy, syncope, or other paroxysmal disorders, but are not caused by neuronal hypersynchronization or other epileptic semiology.1 Asynchronous movements, closed eyes, crying, stuttering, side-to-side head movement, and pelvic thrusting may be observed, all of which are atypical of epileptic seizures.1 PNES, a syndrome of “pseudo-seizures,” is recognized in 11% of convulsive seizure cases presenting to the emergency department (ED).2 PNES can co-occur with epilepsy; in 2 population-based studies, the pooled rate of EEG-confirmed comorbid epilepsy in PNES was 14%.3
Patients with PNES may present to multiple clinicians and hospitals for assessment. Access to outside hospital records can be limited, which can lead to redundant testing and increased health care costs and burden. Additionally, repeat presentations can increase stigmatization of the patient and delay or prevent appropriate therapeutic management, which might exacerbate a patient’s underlying psychiatric condition and could be dangerous in a patient with a co-occurring true seizure disorder. Though obtaining and reviewing external medical records can be cumbersome, doing so may prevent unnecessary testing, guide medical treatment, and strengthen the patient-doctor therapeutic alliance.
In this article, I discuss our treatment team’s management of a patient with PNES who, based on our careful review of records from previous hospitalizations, may have had a co-occurring true seizure disorder.
Ms. M, age 31, has a medical history of anxiety, depression, first-degree atrioventricular block, type 2 diabetes, and PNES. She presented to the ED with witnessed seizure activity at home.
According to collateral information, earlier that day Ms. M said she felt like she was seizing and began mumbling, but returned to baseline within a few minutes. Later, she demonstrated intermittent upper and lower extremity shaking for more than 1 hour. At one point, Ms. M appeared to be not breathing. However, upon initiation of chest compressions, she began gasping for air and immediately returned to baseline.
In the ED, Ms. M demonstrated multiple seizure-like episodes every 5 minutes, each lasting 5 to 10 seconds. These episodes were described as thrashing of the bilateral limbs and head crossing midline with eyes closed. No urinary incontinence or tongue biting was observed. Following each episode, Ms. M was unresponsive to verbal or tactile stimuli but intermittently opened her eyes. Laboratory test results were notable for an elevated serum lactate and positive for cannabinoids on urine drug screen.
Ms. M expressed frustration when told that her seizures were psychogenic. She was adamant that she had a true seizure disorder, demanded testing, and threatened to leave against medical advice without it. She said her brother had epilepsy, and thus she knew how seizures present. The interview was complicated by Ms. M’s mistrust and Cluster B personality disorder traits, such as splitting staff into “good and bad.” Ultimately, she was able to be reassured and did not leave the hospital.
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