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What Causes Non-Epileptic Seizures?

When people think of a seizure, they may associate the event with epilepsy, a disease characterized by unprovoked seizures. But did you know there are other causes of seizures unrelated to epilepsy? One common type is called a non-epileptic seizure.

A non-epileptic seizure is identified by a loss of or change in physical function. It often can look very similar to an epileptic seizure, though it’s not caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. While there are many misconceptions about this medical condition, it’s important to point out that non-epileptic seizures are a separate medical problem than epileptic seizures and have different treatments options.

Non-epileptic seizures (NES) have two classifications:

  • Psychogenic episodes
  • Organic non-epileptic episodes

Most often, a psychogenic NES is caused by stress, emotional trauma, or mental illness. Someone having a psychogenic NES will not show the typical electroencephalogram (EEG) findings of an epileptic seizure. Although there’s no physical cause, it’s still a very real condition brought on by a number of triggers including excessive stress.

Organic non-epileptic seizures differ from psychogenic seizures in that they have an underlying physical cause. Conditions like diabetes, cardiac arrhythmia, or low blood pressure can result in sudden changes in the blood or oxygen supply to the brain, causing a seizure.

Diagnosing Non-Epileptic Seizures

The symptoms of non-epileptic seizures often look similar to epileptic seizures, like jerky movements, loss of bladder control, or convulsions. In fact, up to 20 percent of people evaluated at adult epilepsy centers actually have non-epileptic seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.

The cause of seizures can be complicated but must be understood in order to help the struggling individual. A neurologist can perform brain scans, EEG, and other tests to exclude epilepsy. If epilepsy is eliminated as a cause, you may be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist for neuropsychological testing (NPT).

In the case of psychogenic NES, the episodes may be caused by stressful psychological experiences or emotional trauma. For some, the stress may result from physical or sexual abuse, often experienced in childhood. Others may have gone through a traumatic life event, like the death of a child or a difficult divorce. The symptoms of NES may be the body’s way of reducing anxiety by not recognizing or responding to an emotional conflict.

Non-Epileptic Seizure Treatments

As what causes seizures differs, so do the treatments. Often, if you are diagnosed with NES, you may be taken off previously prescribed anti-epileptic drugs under physician supervision. Anti-epileptic drugs are not effective in treating NES. The treatment for NES will begin with a psychiatric evaluation and working with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker.

Behavioral techniques like relaxation therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy have shown great results. If the person is struggling with depression or anxiety, there may be medication prescribed to help with these unique issues. The treatment for NES is advancing every day and is highly effective when diagnosed appropriately.

Non-epileptic seizure is a well-recognized diagnosis and is a field of promising new research and study. Still, a diagnosis of any type of seizure can be confusing and scary. Understanding what causes seizures and how to treat them is the first step in helping someone deal with them.

For more information on how to diagnose, treat, and manage non-epileptic seizures, contact the experts at UPMC’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.