In what context should psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) be understood?

Updated: Jul 26, 2018
  • Author: Selim R Benbadis, MD; Chief Editor: Helmi L Lutsep, MD  more...
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The neurology and epilepsy literature on PNES often implies that PNES is a unique disorder. In reality, PNES is but one type of somatic symptom disorder. How the psychopathology is expressed (PNES, paralysis, diarrhea, or pain) is different only in the diagnostic aspects. Fundamentally, the underlying psychopathology, its prognosis, and its management are no different in PNES than they are in other psychogenic symptoms. Whatever the manifestations, psychogenic symptoms are a challenge in both diagnosis and management.

Psychogenic (i.e., nonorganic, functional) symptoms are common in medicine. By conservative estimates, at least 10% of all medical services are provided for psychogenic symptoms. These symptoms are also common in neurology, representing approximately 9% of all inpatient neurology admissions and probably an even higher percentage of outpatient visits. Common neurologic symptoms that are found to be psychogenic include paralysis, mutism, visual symptoms, sensory symptoms, movement disorders, gait or balance problems, and pain.

For several neurologic symptoms, signs or maneuvers have been described to help differentiate organic from nonorganic symptoms. For example, limb weakness is often evaluated by means of the Hoover test, for which a quantitative version has been proposed. Other examples are looking for give-way weakness and alleged blindness with preserved optokinetic nystagmus. More generally, the neurologic examination is often aimed to elicit symptoms or signs that do not make neuroanatomic sense (e.g., facial numbness affecting the angle of the jaw, gait with astasia-abasia or tight-roping).

Every medical specialty has its share of symptoms that can be psychogenic. In gastroenterology, these include vomiting, dysphagia, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. In cardiology, chest pain that is noncardiac is traditionally referred to as musculoskeletal chest pain, but it is probably psychogenic. Symptoms that can be psychogenic in other specialties include shortness of breath and cough in pulmonary medicine, psychogenic globus or dysphonia in otolaryngology, excoriations in dermatology, erectile dysfunction in urology, and blindness or convergence spasms in ophthalmology.

Pain syndromes for which a psychogenic component is likely include tension headaches, chronic back pain, limb pain, rectal pain, and sexual organ pain. Pain is, by definition, entirely subjective; therefore, to confidently say that pain is psychogenic is essentially impossible, and the term psychogenic is all but discredited in the pain literature. One could even argue that all pains are psychogenic; therefore, psychogenic pain is one of the most uncomfortable diagnoses to make. In addition to isolated symptoms, some consider certain syndromes to be at least partly and possibly entirely psychogenic (ie, without any organic basis). These controversial but fashionable diagnoses include fibromyalgia, fibrositis, myofascial pain, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and multiple chemical sensitivity.

For a review of this topic, see the Bibliography. [16, 17, 7]

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