Misdiagnosis of prolonged psychogenic non-epileptic seizures as status epilepticus: epidemiology and associated risks

J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2021 Dec;92(12):1341-1345. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2021-326443. Epub 2021 Aug 6.


Objective: To determine the epidemiology of prolonged psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (pPNES) misdiagnosed as status epilepticus, as well as the risks associated with non-indicated treatment.

Methods: We performed an individual patient data analysis from the Rapid Anticonvulsant Medication Prior to Arrival Trial (RAMPART) and the Established Status Epilepticus Treatment Trial (ESETT) to assess incidence, patient characteristics and clinical course of misdiagnosed pPNES.

Results: Among 980 patients aged 8 years or older diagnosed and treated for status epilepticus in RAMPART and ESETT, 79 (8.1%) were discharged with a final diagnosis of pPNES. The relative incidence was highest in adolescents and young adults (20.1%). The typical female preponderance seen in that age bracket was not evident in children and older adults. Adverse effects, including respiratory depression and intubation, were documented in 26% of patients with pPNES receiving benzodiazepines in RAMPART and 33% of patients receiving additional second-line medication in ESETT. In ESETT, patients who were treated with benzodiazepines before hospital admission had higher rates of unresponsiveness and severe adverse effects than those treated after admission, suggesting cumulative effects of accelerated treatment momentum. Across trials, one in five patients with pPNES were admitted to an intensive care unit.

Conclusions: Misdiagnosis and treatment of pPNES as status epilepticus are a common and widespread problem with deleterious consequences. Mitigating it will require training of emergency staff in semiological diagnosis. Status epilepticus response protocols should incorporate appropriate diagnostic re-evaluations at each step of treatment escalation, especially in clinical trials.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use*
  • Child
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Seizures / diagnosis*
  • Seizures / drug therapy
  • Status Epilepticus / diagnosis*
  • Status Epilepticus / drug therapy
  • Young Adult


  • Anticonvulsants