A great question from a concerned sister. My reply follows.
Hi Dr Sethi,
Thank you for your very informative site. My brother was recently diagnised with complex partial epilepsy. His seizures (that he is aware of at least) are very few and far between, on average one every two to six months. He says he knows in advance when the sezures are beginning as he starts with loss of vision slowly in one eye and then the other and then his hands go numb.
He feels that the side effects of the medication interfere with his busy schedule and active lifestyle and has opted not to take any medication due to the long periods between seizures. Is this advisable? If his condition is left untreated could it progress or cause any irreversible problems?
you have asked a very valid question and one that I have confronted personally at many times as a neurologist and epileptologist. If seizures are few and far inbetween do they warrant to be treated? There is no consensus on this. Let me explain in my usual simple way.
Argument in favor of not treating them:
1. At times patient’s get an aura and know their seizure is coming and feel they can take precautions such as sitting down if they are standing or pull over to the side of the road if they happen to be behind the wheel of a car when the aura starts. So the patient feels that since he has only infrequent seizures and that too accompanied by a reliable aura, why take an anticonvulsant medication.
2. Moreover every anticonvulsant has its own side-effect profile. Frequently the side-effects are unpleasant and so if possible the patient would like to avoid taking the medication on a regular basis.
3. Anticonvulsants have to be taken on a daily basis, some medicines have a twice daily or three times a day dosing. This interferes with their lifestyle.
4. If the seizures are few and far inbetween (like for example a patient who suffers one seizure every year), does it make sense to take a medicine on a daily basis (at times with unpleasant side-effects)?
Arguments in favor of treating these infrequent seizures:
1. One of the biggest problems with seizures is their unpredictable nature. A seizure can occur anytime, sometimes out of the blue when the patient least expects it. Moreover one does not want to have a seizure at the wrong place and the wrong time like for example when one is driving or when one is waiting by the side of the rail track or when one is swimming. Seizures can be associated with falls and injuries. Hence it makes sense to treat the seizures and aim for good seizure control no matter how infrequent the seizures may be. Many patients feel more confident when they know they are on an effective anticonvulsant and shall not have a seizure out of the blue.
2. In majority of the countries there are laws with respect to driving if you suffer from epilepsy. A patient may not like to risk loss of his driving privileges and independence if a seizure was to occur. He would rather take an anticonvulsant on a daily basis no matter how infrequent his seizures.
So you can see there are good arguments on both sides. Your brother’s doctor shall be the best person to turn to for advice.
Nitin K Sethi, MD