Innovative ways to treat psychogenic nonepileptic seizures
Brie Zeltner: Vania Mahon has been using daily meditation to control her seizures for about two years. She doesn’t take any medication.
But her seizures, which came on suddenly in the summer of 2009 after a bout of bad headaches, are not typical seizures.
Mahon, 41, of Willowick, has psychogenic nonepileptic seizures, or PNES, a diagnosis that is surprisingly common and can lead to many people being misdiagnosed with epilepsy.
Thirty percent to 40 percent of epilepsy patients in hospital monitoring units actually have PNES. While those patients often appear to be having seizures, there is no abnormal electrical activity in the brain, meaning that the seizurelike activity, while not consciously controlled, is psychological in origin.
Like Mahon, these patients are diagnosed by in-hospital observation with brain-wave and video monitoring during seizure events.
“We don’t hear more about this because there’s a huge stigma attached to it,” says Dr. Tanvir Syed, a neurologist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center who has been treating Mahon and others Read the rest of this article…
“All of a sudden, someone tells them that this is all in their head, and they think they’re crazy, but they’re not,” he says. “They’re sick; it’s a condition just like schizophrenia, just like depression.”
Mahon, who was adopted at a young age and spent time in foster care, says she didn’t realize there was anything wrong with her when she got the headaches.
“I had to store a lot of [trauma] when I was young, apparently, and I didn’t realize that I did that,” she says.
“These seizures are mimicking what you are feeling — your body is expressing it,” she says. “As a child somewhere you suppressed a trauma, and now that your life is finally in order and you feel good about yourself, your body is telling you to look back inside — there’s still something that you have to deal with.”
Syed says many PNES patients have a hard time with the diagnosis because they expect something physical, not psychological, is wrong. Mahon didn’t have that problem, fortunately. She was happy to try a drug-free way of treating her PNES.
For six months, she met weekly with Syed for 15-minute meditation sessions, during which she learned to relax and focus on one thing at a time. First, she learned to breathe, then to slowly focus on one problem from her past.
“Like a computer with a recycle bin, I can look at the problem I’m having and then click it away,” she says. “Then on to the next one.”
Mahon, who started seeing Syed once a month after the initial intensive sessions, only has one seizure event a month now and thinks she will soon be free of them completely. She hopes to return to work as a corporate flight attendant in September.
“Meditation has become a part of my life,” Mahon says. “Dr. Syed has really helped me get through my problems and the pains that I have inside so that I am now able to live freely.”