Clinical Approaches to Psychogenic Nonepileptic Seizures

Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ). 2016 Oct;14(4):422-431. doi: 10.1176/appi.focus.20160020. Epub 2016 Oct 7.


Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) are a subtype of conversion disorder (also called functional neurological symptom disorder in DSM-5). Patients with PNES are high utilizers of health care and can have disability levels similar to those of patients with epilepsy. PNES is a common, complex neuropsychiatric somatoform disorder at the interface of neurology and psychiatry disciplines and is largely overlooked and avoided by mental health providers. Despite advances in establishing accurate diagnosis and evidence-based treatments, recent knowledge about PNES has not been well translated into clinical practice. Long diagnostic delays have been associated with poor prognosis. Recent advances in possible neurophysiological biomarkers include functional MRI studies that show abnormalities in emotional, cognitive, executive, and sensorimotor neurocircuits. Although the gold standard for diagnosis is video electroencephalograph, this test is underused by psychiatrists. The International League Against Epilepsy proposed a staged approach to PNES diagnosis using history, semiologic features, and EEG. Thorough psychiatric assessment can identify relevant biopsychosocial and predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating factors, as well as assess the comorbid psychiatric disorders, which can inform a treatment plan. Clear and thoughtful delivery of diagnosis is the first step in treatment. Regular follow-up with the patient's neurologist, in addition to treatment by mental health professionals familiar with somatic symptom disorders, is recommended. Psychotherapy is the mainstay of treatment, and randomized clinical trials using cognitive-behavioral therapies reveal significant reduction in seizures and other psychiatric symptoms. After centuries, mental health providers now have access to the tools to diagnose and effectively treat PNES and other conversion disorders.

Keywords: Neuropsychiatry/neurobiology, Somatoform Disorders, Seizures, Treatment assessment & planning.