‘I just need to know what they are and if you can help me’: Medicalization and the search for legitimacy in people diagnosed with non-epileptic attack disorder

Marian Peacock, Paul Bissell, Julie Ellis, Jon Mark Dickson, Alistair Wardrope, Richard A. Grünewald, Markus Reuber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper focuses on the struggles for legitimacy expressed by people with non-epileptic attack disorder (NEAD), one of the most common manifestations of functional neurological disorder presenting to emergency and secondary care services. Nonepileptic attacks are episodes of altered experience, awareness, and reduced self-control that superficially resemble epileptic seizures or other paroxysmal disorders but are not associated with physiological abnormalities sufficient to explain the semiological features. “Organic” or medicalized explanations are frequently sought by patients as the only legitimate explanation for symptoms, and consequently, a diagnosis of NEAD is often contested.

Drawing on narrative interviews with patients from a small exploratory study and using a sociological perspective, we propose that a psychological account of NEAD does not provide a sufficiently legitimate path into a socially sanctioned sick role. This is a reflection of the dominance of biomedicine and the associated processes of medicalization. These processes are, we argue, the sole route to achieving legitimacy. The stress-based or psychologically oriented explanations offered to patients in contemporary medical models of the etiology of NEAD engender an uncertain identity and social position and fail to provide many patients with an account of the nature or origin of their symptoms that they find satisfactory or convincing.

These struggles for legitimacy (shared by others with functional or somatoform conditions) are sharpened by key features of the contemporary healthcare landscape, such as the increasing framing of health through a lens of ‘responsibilization’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number109485
Number of pages9
JournalEpilepsy and Behavior
Early online date17 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2023

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