Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures in children: a review

Epilepsia. 2013 Oct;54(10):1715-24. doi: 10.1111/epi.12336. Epub 2013 Aug 14.


One of the considerations when a child presents with paroxysmal events is psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES). PNES are discernible changes in behavior or consciousness that resemble epileptic seizures but are not accompanied by electrophysiologic changes. They are usually understood as the manifestation of a conversion disorder that reflects underlying psychological distress. There is a lack of population-based data on the prevalence or incidence of PNES in pediatric populations. The prevalence of PNES in children would appear to be lower than that in the adult population, but the prevalence of PNES seems to increase with age, and nonepileptic paroxysmal events are more likely to be PNES in adolescence than earlier in childhood. In terms of manifestation, PNES in childhood have been described using various categorizations and terminology, making comparisons across studies difficult. There is some evidence that events are more likely to involve unresponsiveness in younger children and prominent motor symptoms in older children. The most common precipitating factors would appear to be school-related difficulties and interpersonal conflict within the child's family. In terms of psychopathology, children with PNES are at high risk for symptoms of depression and anxiety. Accurate diagnosis of PNES in children is likely to involve taking a comprehensive description of the episodes, garnering the child's medical/developmental history, video-electroencephalography (video-EEG) to rule out epileptic seizures, and an evaluation of family functioning. The importance of effective and sensitive communication of the diagnosis of PNES has been emphasized and management approaches will typically involve multidisciplinary efforts to safely manage the events at home and at school. Interventions to reduce the effect of precipitating psychosocial stressors and the involvement of a mental health professional to treat comorbid psychopathology will also form part of an effective management plan. Outcome at follow-up is reported to be largely positive, although studies have not been able to follow all children, and few studies have focused on predictors of a good outcome. Future controlled intervention studies using a range of outcome measures are needed to identify efficacious approaches and predictors of best outcome.

Keywords: Conversion disorder; Epilepsy; Psychopathology; Semiology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Psychopathology
  • Seizures / diagnosis
  • Seizures / etiology*
  • Seizures / physiopathology
  • Seizures / therapy
  • Stress, Psychological / complications