Alcohol and seizures: a few questions and their answers.

One of the readers of my blog asked me a few questions. His questions and my answers to them follow.

Hello Dr Sethi! To begin with, I’d like to thank you for clarifying and educate us about seizures.(esp. rum fits, alcohol withdrawal seizures and Dts seizures)

I have some questions:

1. How would I differentiate between epilepsy and alcoholic fits? Ignoring any test(EEG,CT), i mean based on the clinical manifestation?eg. duration of fits?the sequence of occurence (pattern of seizure)?etc…

2. how would i differentiate between epilepsy and the ‘fits’ that is seen in patients with hysteria (conversion disorder)?

3. is treatment necessary for alcohol fits? or just allow the patient to relax in the recovery position and let the fit go away?

4. how would you distinguish between: alcohol withdrawal syndrome and DT? is there any special cardinal symptom that will give me a clue that the patient is in DT.?

Thank you very much Dr Sethi. looking forward to hear from you.

Dr. Ronny Gooriah (doing Internship)

Dear Dr. Gooriah,
thank you for writing in to me. I am glad you found the information presented useful. Now without further delay, let me answer your questions.

1. If I understood your question you want to know how to differentiate between seizures caused by alcohol (alcohol fits) from seizures/epilepsy caused by other conditions. As you may be well aware of, epilepsy is a condition which predisposes the patient to multiple convulsions in his/her lifetime. There are numerous causes of epilepsy. Broadly speaking epilepsy can be idiopathic , symptomatic or cryptogenic. Seizures may also occur secondary to a medical condition which may or may not involve the brain like for example a brain tumor, head trauma, meningitis or encephalitis and in the setting of multiorgan failure such as sepsis, renal or hepatic failure. There is no absolute way of differentiating a seizure caused by alcohol (excessive use or sudden stoppage) from epilepsy (whether idiopathic, symptomatic or cryptogenic) specially early in the course of the disease. One needs to take a thorough history which should include a history of alcohol intake. How much? what kind? over what time frame were the drinks consumed? were drinks mixed? were recreational drugs taken along with the alcohol and so forth. Other history which may be helpful in determining if the patient has epilepsy include: a history of febrile convulsions, family history of seizures, history of meningitis or encephalitis, history of significant head trauma and if seizures have occured in settings where the patient was not abusing alcohol. The answer to all these questions and the results of tests such as EEG and neuroimaging (MRI brain) shall help in determining whether the patient has epilepsy per se or whether all his seizures can be attributed to alcohol.

2. Nonepileptic events (pseudoseizures) may occur as a manifestation of a somatoform or conversion disorder. These patients have events that look like seizures (sudden shaking of the body and the patient may appear to suffer loss of consciousness) but there is no EEG correlate to these events. Meaning that the EEG shows the patient is not having a seizure. Patients who exhibit nonepileptic events (some doctors refer to them as hysterical convulsions) usually fall in two categories. Either they are doing this for a secondary gain (seeking attention, disability or financial compensation aka they are malingering) or these events are really not under their conscious control (usually these patients are under severe mental stress or may have history of physical or sexual abuse). A trained eye (such as a neurologist) simply by looking at the clinical event shall at times be able to determine if it is a true seizure or a pseudoseizure/ hysterical convulsion. At times though the differentiation is indeed difficult (if solely based on the description of the event). A video-EEG in these cases is extremely helpful. As the name suggests the patient is attached to a EEG machine while under video surveillance. The idea is to capture a typical seizure on the camera and look at the EEG at the same time.

3. If the patient suffers a single alcohol related seizure, no treatment may be necessary apart from simple observation and making sure the patient does not hurt himself. On the other hand if the patient suffers a flurry of seizures one after the other, you may have to give medications to stop the seizures at least acutely. Whether such patients warrant long term anticonvulsant therapy is another issue and needs careful consideration.

4. Patients who are in DT or have impending DT usually have dysautonomia. They are frequently tachycardic or have irregular heart rate, their blood pressure may be high and have wide swings, they may have profuse sweating and are disoriented, confused and agitated (hence the word delirium). DT has a high mortality and hence these patients need close supervision and aggressive treatment usually in an intensive care setting.

I hope I have answered your questions to your satisfaction.

Personal Regards,

Nitin Sethi, MD

2 thoughts on “Alcohol and seizures: a few questions and their answers.

  1. Dear Sir/Madam,

    I am under a Neurologist’s care at present. A few weeks back I had tingling, numbness, stiffness in my right wrist, within days/hours this spread from my hand to my neck all the way down the right side of my body. CAT scan and xray clear. MRI scan shows an abnormality within the upper part of the cervical spine consistent with demyelination. Also shows a single small focus of abnormal signal in the left frontal region. He feels it possible I may have an isolated episode of tranverse myelitis. I also have an odd sensation when I put my chin on my chest, I have felt this for approx 6 months plus, it feels like an elastic band stretching, not painful just an odd feeling. The symptoms have not got better 3 weeks on and now I feel the same tingling in my left fingers the same as this started in the right side. I have been given MEDRONE today (19/12/11) 100mg and told to take 5 tablets all in one go so I have 500mg dose. Not sure I like the feeling that comes with these tablets and thats spacing them out, don’t think I could take them all together. Any feed back would be greatfully appreciated. I’m 41 years old, fit and healthy usually, work hard, mum of 2. Just had an early diagnosis of menopause. Many thanks. Kind regards. Nikki

    1. Dear Nikki,
      thank you for writing in to me. From your history it seems you were diagnosed with transverse myelitis. Transverse myelitis (TM) as the name suggests is an inflammatory process of the spinal cord and usually involves the cervical or thoracic spinal cord. MRI of the cervical spine further helps to characterize it: complete TM Vs incomplete TM. There can be many causes of TM: inflammatory/demyelinating (multiple sclerosis among other diseases), infectious causes, paraneoplastic, postvaccinal (drugs and other toxic causes) and autoimmune/collagen vascular diseases. Sometimes inspite of an extensive work-up no cause can be determined. This is termed idiopathic TM.
      Based on the site and extent of the lesion, the symptoms vary. If the patient has a complete TM high up in the cervical cord (like around C5-C6): there is usually involvement of both arms and legs (quadriparesis). The bladder and bowel function may also be affected. If the lesion is small and eccentrically placed in the cervical cord (incomplete TM), the symptoms may not be so symmetrical and the patient may present with numbness and weakness in one arm and leg. If the lesion is below C6-C7, usually the arms are spared and only the legs are involved.
      You say you experience an odd sensation when you put your chin to your chest. What you are experiencing is called the Lhermitte’s sign (LS). It is an electric/shock like sensation which runs down the back and into the limbs and is elicited by bending the head forward. This occurs because the nerve tracts (dorsal columns which carry sensations such as joint sense, vibration sense and position sense) running down the cervical spine are damaged. LS is a nonspecific sign and can be seen in many diseases which involve the dorsal columns. Transverse myelitis is one such disease process and hence this sign can be elicited in some patients.
      Once a patient is diagnosed with TM, an extensive evaluation is carried out to determine the cause of TM. The diseases some of which I have mentioned before are looked for and meticulously excluded. MRI of the brain and other tests to rule out multiple sclerosis may be carried out (as it seems were done in your case) to secure the diagnosis–is the TM because of some underlying disease and if so what is the disease or is the TM truly idiopathic?
      Treatment of TM depends upon the cause of TM. Like for example if the TM is due to a demyelinating disease such as multiple sclerosis, the treatment involves treatment of MS with immunomodulating drugs. If the cause is infectious, then the underlying infection is treated. If the patient has idiopathic TM and in some cases of inflammatory MS, then based on the time of your clinical presentation, your doctor may decide to treat you with high dose steroids (usually 500-1000mg of methylprednisolone is given once a day for 3 to 5 days). This helps to hasten recovery.
      I hope I have answered some of your questions Nikki.

      Personal Regards,

      Nitin Sethi, MD

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