Staring spells in children: descriptive features distinguishing epileptic and nonepileptic events

J Pediatr. 1998 Nov;133(5):660-3. doi: 10.1016/s0022-3476(98)70108-8.


Objective: To identify questions sensitive and specific for staring spells of epileptic (absence seizures [AS]) or nonepileptic etiology to increase the yield of history taking.

Study design: A questionnaire was completed by parents of 40 children who presented with staring spells. Results from 17 children with AS and 23 with nonepileptic staring (NES) were compared.

Results: Features with moderate sensitivity (43% to 56%) but high specificity (87% to 88%) for NES included preserved responsiveness to touch, lack of interruption of playing, and initial identification by a teacher or health professional. These features were more frequent in NES than in AS (P = .013, .016, .030). Body rocking occurred only in NES, but sensitivity was low (13%). Features with high specificity (91% to 100%) for AS included limb twitches, upward eye movements, and urinary incontinence; but sensitivities were low (13% to 35%).

Conclusion: In children with normal interictal electroencephalography findings and without neurologic disease, staring spells are most likely nonepileptic when parents report preserved responsiveness to touch, body rocking, or initial identification by a teacher or health professional without limb twitches, upward eye movements, interruption of play, or urinary incontinence. In these cases a diagnosis of NES may be confidently applied, with confirmation based on long-term follow-up.

MeSH terms

  • Arousal
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Electroencephalography
  • Epilepsy, Absence / diagnosis*
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Neurologic Examination
  • Sensitivity and Specificity