Differentiating between nonepileptic and epileptic seizures

Nat Rev Neurol. 2011 Apr;7(4):210-20. doi: 10.1038/nrneurol.2011.24. Epub 2011 Mar 8.


Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) resemble epileptic seizures and are often misdiagnosed and mistreated as the latter. Occasionally, epileptic seizures are misdiagnosed and mistreated as PNES. 70% of PNES cases develop between the second and fourth decades of life, but this disease can also affect children and the elderly. At least 10% of patients with PNES have concurrent epileptic seizures or have had epileptic seizures before being diagnosed with PNES. Psychological stress exceeding an individual's coping capacity often precedes PNES. Clinicians can find differentiating between PNES and epileptic seizures challenging. Some clinical features can help distinguish PNES from epileptic seizures, but other features associated with PNES are nonspecific and occur during both types of seizures. Diagnostic errors often result from an overreliance on specific clinical features. Note that no single feature is pathognomonic for PNES. When typical seizures can be recorded, video-EEG is the diagnostic gold standard for PNES, and in such cases a diagnosis can be made with high accuracy. When video-EEG reveals no epileptiform activity before, during or after the ictus, thorough neurological and psychiatric histories can be used to confirm the diagnosis of PNES. In this article, we review the clinical features that can help clinicians differentiate between PNES and epileptic seizures.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Affective Symptoms / etiology
  • Autonomic Pathways / physiopathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Electroencephalography
  • Epilepsy / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / complications
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Risk Factors
  • Seizures / complications
  • Seizures / diagnosis*
  • Video Recording