Types of Non-Epileptic Seizures

Someone having a seizure may stare, feel dizzy, seem confused, shake, twitch, wet themselves, or fall. Seizures may be caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. These seizures are called epileptic seizures.

However, not everyone who has a seizure has epilepsy. Many other health conditions can cause seizures or what looks like a seizure. These are called non-epileptic seizures (NES) or psychogenic non-epileptic seizures.1-4

Causes of non-epileptic seizures

Non-epileptic seizures are common. These seizures are most often caused by mental stress or another health condition, such as:1,2,4

  • Heart conditions that cause fainting
  • Diabetes and other metabolic disorders
  • Mood disorders like depression or anxiety
  • Personality disorders
  • History of trauma like physical or sexual abuse (PTSD)

These seizures are not caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain.1-3

Who gets them?

Certain groups of people are more likely to have non-epileptic seizures, such as:1,3

  • Women
  • People ages 15 to 35
  • Those with a history of depression, anxiety, or personality disorders
  • People who have been physically, sexually, or mentally abused
  • Those with post-traumatic stress

What do non-epileptic seizures look like?

Non-epileptic seizures may look like an epileptic seizure. Symptoms may include:1

  • Jerking, twitching, convulsions
  • Crying out
  • Stiff muscles
  • Falling down
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Biting the tongue
  • Staring
  • Abnormal eye movements or forceful eye closure
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness, tingling
  • Repetitive motions
  • Aura (changes in senses of taste or smell)
  • Changes in emotions

NES may last a short or long time. The person may or may not be aware of what is going on around them.3

Diagnosis

An EEG (electroencephalogram) is the test used to diagnose epilepsy. An EEG tracks electrical activity patterns in the brain. Someone with epilepsy will have abnormal patterns in their EEG test results. Someone with non-epileptic seizures will not have unusual EEG results.

Other tests may be needed if a condition like heart disease or diabetes is suspected. A mental health exam may be ordered, too.

Treatment

Talk therapy is the most common treatment for these seizures. Medicines for depression or anxiety also may be prescribed. Some anti-seizure drugs work for non-epileptic seizures because they help with mood. In fact, many people with mood disorders and no concern for seizures are prescribed certain anti-seizure drugs because of this.1,2

It is possible for someone with epilepsy to also have NES.3

Up to half of people with NES stop having these seizures once a diagnosis is made. This is more common in children.3

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: November 2021