Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES)
What are non-epileptic seizures (PNES)?
Seizures are episodes of a temporary loss of
control that may involve convulsions,
change in consciousness or both. Epileptic
seizures are caused by abnormal electrical
firing in the brain.
Non-epileptic seizures are events that can
look like epileptic seizures but they are not
caused by abnormal electrical firing in the
brain. The symptoms are real. These events
cannot be controlled by the people who have
them. Other terms for PNES include:
ξ psychogenic spells,
ξ attacks or events.
One in 5 patients referred for epilepsy
testing have PNES. It is most common
among adolescents and young adults, but
can affect anyone. PNES is most commonly
mistaken for epilepsy.
PNES can look like seizures. Someone
might shake or fall down during an attack.
There might be staring spells or other
symptoms similar to epileptic seizures. Your
provider may suspect you have PNES based
on the details of your symptoms. You might
be asked to describe:
ξ types of movements,
ξ length of events, and
ξ how often they happen.
One aim of testing is to rule out epilepsy.
The best way to diagnose PNES is by using
video-EEG (electroencephalogram). This
records electrical activity in the brain.
Testing may take hours or days until
seizure-like symptoms occur.
Non-epileptic attacks do not have a known
physical cause. PNES, unlike epileptic
seizures, are not caused by a brain disease.
Instead, the events are stress-induced. They
may occur because of past traumatic events.
Such events can produce physical symptoms
in people without physical illness.
Extreme emotional stress can cause physical
illness. Most people can recall blushing
when feeling embarrassed or feeling sweaty
palms and faster heart rate as part of a “stage
fright” reaction. Through ongoing research,
we know that more extreme emotional
stresses can actually cause physical illness.
Medicines often used for epilepsy do not
control PNES. Studies show that therapy,
lowering stress, and personal support reduce
or stop the seizure-like symptoms. Mental
health professionals are best prepared to
provide treatment. This could include
psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical
social workers. Some people believe that
this is a sign of being “crazy.” This is not
the case. These events are not caused on
purpose. With proper treatment 70% of
adults stop having PNES.
Websites for More Information
ξ Epilepsy Foundation:
1. Epilepsy Foundation (n.d.). Nonepileptic
Seizures or Events. Retrieved from
2. Benbadis SR, Heriaud L. (n.d).
Psychogenic (non-epileptic) seizures, A
guide for families & patients. Retrieved
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have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 12/2017 University of Wisconsin Hospitals
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