Seizures: a question and an answer

One of the readers of my blog wrote to me recently. His question and my reply to it follows. I think some of you may find it helpful.

 

Hello Dr. Sethi,
 
I came to your site/blog while doing a Google search regarding delirium tremens, which I found extremely helpful!  So I thought I would ask for your opinion about a diagnosis my neurologist gave to me about half a year or so ago.  Please feel free to remove my email and name and post on your blog!
 
So my history is that I’m 20 years of age and have had two seizures in the past…36 months or so.  I have had no family history of seizures or epilepsy, one case each of diabetes (treated with metformin), stroke (no known treatment), and breast cancer (treated by partial mastectomy).  Both sides of my family are on high blood pressure medications.  I myself have a history of reactive airway disease.  I have also been prescribed lots of co-actifed and have developed a bit of an addiction to using drugs that cause sedation; among the things I can list are: codeine, diphenhydramine, Actifed, lorazepam, and tramadol (I would say this is probably significant), and I often self dose; with high amounts of codeine, and often double or triple the recommended doses for benadryl and Actifed (as on the box); these three are the most common drugs I take to sleep, I realize I am developing a tolerance to them.  I am trying to stop using these as a way of falling asleep. 
 
Anyway, so the first incidence of my seizure happened when I was working on my computer, writing up a laboratory report that I was working on for a while.  I had been sitting there for several hours already.  I had been taking tramadol on and off for the couple of months or so.  I fell into a seizure and my mother found me.  Nobody saw what happened as I slipped into a seizure, I just fell backwards. 
Key things I remembered/observed:
-I did not have an aura
-I did not have incontinence
-I instinctively bit down, but I do not know if I bit my tongue because my mom had put her finger in my mouth
-I had nausea when I woke up
-The whole sequence of events I believe lasted around 5 or so minutes. 
 
The ER doc and the paramedics had concluded the seizure was due to tramadol. 
 
The second incidence of seizure happened when I was sleep deprived, though arguably I was sleep deprived in the first incidence too.  I had only slept several hours the night before and I did not nap (which I usually do for several hours during the day).  I spent the whole day awake, and I went to a friend’s house afterwards.  I was playing a poker game, which often makes me feel really stressed (I get sweaty palms, feeling of coldness, a bit of light-headedness, and sometimes I get slight dizziness).  I remember that I had not eaten much at dinnertime and I was hungry, so I ate a bunch of chips as a snack, with an iced tea to drink.  I remember I had slipped into a seizure, again with the same symptoms as the first time, lasting about 5 minutes.  The key issue is that I did NOT bite my tongue. 
 
Again, I was taken to the ER and the ER doc was not sure what could have caused it.  I do not recall taking any drugs throughout the course of the day but I might have taken some diphenhydramine to sleep the night before.  I realize that these act on the nervous system.  The ER doc immediately prescribed me phenytoin and referred me to a neurologist, and an EEG ordered. My neurologist subsequently ordered an MRI.
 
 
When I went to see my neurologist, she examined me as usual and asked for the same details I have given above.  Her conclusion given her initial diagnosis was an epileptic seizure of cause unknown.  Her suspected trigger was sleep deprivation.  A second neurologist I visited repeated the diagnosis. 
 
Following the EEG and MRI, I went back to see my neurologist (this was after several visits).  The EEG had come back normal.  I did not lose consciousness (aside from the sleeping phase of the test) nor was ever informed that I had a seizure during the course of the test.  The MRI had also come back as negative in anything in my brain.  I was not informed of any other explanation other than a “possible” epilepsy condition.  Neurologist placed me on phenytoin, which I took for three weeks before having an allergic reaction and had to be switched over to levetiracetam.  Following that I saw the neurologist again due to severe depression and mood disorder.  We decided mutually not to take the medication, of which she warned me that there was a 75% chance of a third seizure in the following year. 
 
To this date, I have not had another seizure, and about 7 months has passed since the incident.  Again I have not taken any antiepileptics aside from occasional (several days to several weeks in between doses) lorazepam 1mg. 
 
I should note also that while having taken lorazepam 1mg-2mg (and being off of it for a week), I have subsequently drank more alcohol than I usually do and taken a ranitidine 150mg before going to drink (supposedly to prevent hangovers and being able to drink more).  The amount I drank was about 2 shots and a beer, before I started to experience delirium tremens.  The odd thing is, however, that exactly one week after that incident, I drank the same amount of alcohol but did not have delirium tremens (without having taken the ranitidine).  I understand how alcohol works in the brain by depressing the nervous system. 
 
I understand that the medication is preventative, but I am worried that I might have another seizure.  It puzzles me since my lack of taking medication should therefore result in seizures if I really have epilepsy.  I understand that drugs can cause seizures, especially in overdosing amounts, however, I would really like a second opinion about whether or not I really do have epilepsy.  Of course I understand that your opinion is only an opinion since I have not been examined by yourself, but I have provided as much relevant information as I can.  I also understand that there are many triggers of epilepsy, and often the cause isn’t really clear.  I would like to be seizure free of course and not have to take medication, but my neurologists are telling me otherwise, which concerns me. 
 
Please reply to me with your opinion as your time allows.  Oh please feel free to also use medical jargon if you wish in your replies, I am actually studying as a pre-med student myself, which might be where the stress is coming from. 
 
With Regards and thanks,
 
xx
Dear XX,
                               thank you for writing in to me. You gave me a very detailed and thorough history. While as a rule I do not and should not diagnose someone over the Internet since I have neither taken the history myself nor examined them, I do have a few words of advice. It is likely you have an underlying tendency to have a seizure. It is also well known that sleep deprivation, excessive use of over the counter antihistamincs and other prescribed medications such as lorazepam, codeine and Tramadol can lower the seizure threshold especially when you are mixing these medications with alcohol.
 
Let me explain in another way. Two of your doctors (ER physician and neurologist) feel that you have epilepsy and prescribed anti-convulsant therapy. A normal EEG and a normal MRI brain do not rule out epilepsy. Infact many epileptics may have a normal routine (40 minutes) EEG study. Hence to increase the yield sometimes a more prolonged EEG study is ordered (such as a 24 hour ambulatory EEG study or an inpatient video-EEG study). If the EEG study clearly shows interictal epileptiform discharges, it strengthens the argument that you suffer from epilepsy and that it shall be prudent to continue taking an anti-convulsant since the chance of a third seizure is high. On the other hand if the EEG study comes back normal, we are back to square one. It does NOT rule out epilepsy. Levetiracetam has been reported to cause psychogenic side-effects such as anxiety. It can also make patients frankly depressed. So a mutual decision between you and your physician was made to stop levetiracetam.
 
If I understand your email right, at present you are NOT on any anti-convulsant therapy. Your physician rightly informed you of the risks of taking this approach. You should remain in close follow up with your neurologist. Also since you have already suffered two convulsions (and have decided not to continue anti-convulsant therapy), it shall indeed be prudent if you make significant lifestyle changes. Namely avoiding alcohol completely or if that is not possible drinking in extreme moderation. I would also advice cutting down your use of over the counter sedatives, antihistaminics and other sleeping aids. You should maintain seizure and fall precautions at all times. Remember seizures are associated with falls and sometimes fatal injuries have occured. I always tell my patients  “you do not want to have a seizure at the wrong place and at the wrong time”. You should not drive as per the law of the state you reside in. Maintain good sleep hygiene and again remain in follow up with your physician. He/she shall be the best person to guide your care going forward.
 
Personal Regards,

Nitin Sethi, MD

Seizures associated with excessive alcohol intake-why me?

One of the readers of my blog asked a question about alcohol induced seizures. His question and my reply to it follows. I have removed the name to maintain confidentality as always.

QUESTION

Hi; I wanted to read up about alcohol induced seizures because I have a question(s) for you, but I guess I should give you a little background first. I have had 7 of them, never had a problem before. The first one I do remember…I was drinking heavily ( Vodka ) and had done some recreational drugs too. I was in the kitchen and my bottom jaw “stuck” out and my hands clinched tight! My brain said “lay down” so I did and that’s as much as I remember. My soon to be wife and my son told me that my lips turned blue, eyes rolled up and I “wet” myself.Needless to say they called 9-11 but I refused to go.The other 6 six I do not remember…although the last one happened in the street and I got 3 staples in the head as a result.My Dad was an alcoholic so I never really drank growing up.However,when my son’s mother and I split when he was 2 ( he is 16 now ) I started to drink more, I had socially here and there but not like this.The seizures started about 3+ years ago I would “guesstimate”.I tried rehab 3 times – no good.At my “peak” I was drinking a gallon of Vodka a day.( I am not making any of this up! ).I have had massive panic attacks,spent hours ( every 20 min.) over the toilet,my blood pressure was through the roof and on and on.The “nail in the coffin” for me was one day I had my “other half” leave work to bring me my fix because I couldn’t handle the with-drawls any longer that morning. I drank about a pint and had pain in my chest,irregular breathing and I honestly felt like I was going to die!!My neighbor took me to emergency.When my “other half” got wind of it and showed up I was in horrible shape. The Doctor told her my blood-alcohol was .335 and he wanted to know how come I was even still functioning.( I know nothing of the point scale but I assume that was pretty bad ).I spent 3 days there, 2 on a heart monitor.They gave me Valume ( I don’t think I spelled that right ) and I don’t know what else.I had been given Librium in the past but they did not give me any, nor did I have any seizures while I was there.I was however really scared.When I came home I swore to my family that that was it……..it will 2 years in April !!! I drink a lot of coffee ( w/milk and sugar of course )and I like my ice cream!I build and paint models to “occupy” myself around the house but I do still think about it ( drinking ) here and there.I’m really not to worried about starting again…all I have to do is think about what I put the people I love through and that pretty much ” kills ” any craving,but I am fully aware that I will always be an Alcoholic. I do have an excessive personality, I really can’t do anything in moderation and I have insomnia ( in other words I am VERY high strung to begin with ).I will say that life is sooooo much better now but I do have a couple of questions……Why all of a sudden?  20+ years of “partying” and then one night “boom”( or did I answer my own question? ).It did take awhile to get to a gallon a day ( a few years in fact ). On a bigger scale….what I really would like to know is am I done having them? I think about them once and awhile and it kind of scares me to think I could be out doing something and have another one.I abstain from alcohol and everything else, but I do miss being able to “socialize” like everyone else.I don’t mind when people drink around me, it doesn’t tempt me or anything ( plus I know what they are going to feel like later! ) but I guess I put myself in that “boat”. Am I done having them??? I haven’t had one since I stopped drinking although one night at work shortly after I stopped I did have some kind of “panic attack”( light head,scared,sweating,dizzy-I just went home ) been O.K since but that is what got me wondering if I am truly done w/them.( I cannot associate any pain or anything w/having them – just waking up disoriented in an ambulance or wherever else, but again….I am clean and sober and will stay that way so can I assume that there won’t be anymore?
And to anyone reading this….I am no expert on this and believe me, I don’t tell ANYONE how to live their life but –  if your to the point of having seizures from drinking like I did – time to quit the game and walk away! I was playing a game that almost cost me my life – wasn’t worth it!
Thank you for your time reading this and I look forward to your response.

ANSWER

Thank you for writing in to me. As the name of my post suggests the seizure/ convulsion in the above case is usually temporally associated with excessive alcohol use. I shall use your question to discuss alcohol induced seizures at length namely under the following points:

“I can drink but know exactly when to stop”: people frequently have this misconception (these are people who usually suffer from a drinking problem aka alcoholics but still feel they have their drinking under control). Now what is “excessive” for one may be the “norm” for another. So there is no hard and fixed limit about exactly how much alcohol can be “safely consumed” without provoking a seizure.  Some people can drink like a fish and still not suffer a convulsion and there are others who have suffered an alcohol induced convulsion after just a “few” drinks. In my experience some people are particulary good in knowing when to stop. They shall drink right up to the limit but then stop and “be okay”. That said I feel this is playing with fire and if you are drinking right up the edge, you are playing Russian roulette.  

Another misconception that I have encountered is that people frequently feel that if they drink top shelf vodka or scotch or more commonly wine they are immune from suffering the ill-effects of excessive alcohol intake aka a seizure. Again it is not the type of alcohol which is consumed that makes you prone to have a convulsion, it is the absolute amount consumed. So if you drink bottle after bottle of wine, you are just as likely to suffer a convulsion as when you consume excessive amounts of some bottle shelf vodka. Obviously it goes without saying that one can ‘safely” cosume more bottle of light beer than an alcoholic beverage with a higher quantity of absolute alcohol.

When a person has suffered a convulsion in the field is brought to the emergency room, doctors as a rule usually check the blood alcohol level. This gives a fair indication about exactly how much alcohol was consumed and helps us in determing if excessive alcohol ingestion played a role in the seizure. The absolute blood alcohol level though is just a number and other things have to be considered before a seizure is attributed to excessive alcohol inake:

how long ago was the last drink consumed?  (alcohol is rather quickly metabolized and hence one may obtain a falsely low reading if the blood level is checked after some time has lapsed since the last drink).

over what time frame was the alcohol consumed ?(you are more likely to suffer a convulsion if you consume excessive amounts over a very short interval of time–aka if you are binge drinking). The caveat to that is alcohol withdrawal seizure if which a person who is a chronic alcoholic abruptly ceases drinking and suffers a withdrawal seizure. This usually occurs 24-48 hours after the last drink was consumed.

whether the drinks were mixed? one is more likely to suffer a convulsion in the setting of consuming many different types of drink (vodka, rum, whisky, beer) in one sitting. Again my personal impression is that this is not because one consumed different kinds of drinks, it is because when drinks are mixed you are more likely to consume more alcohol and not get a warning about when to stop.

whether there was use of illicit drugs along with the alcohol? combining alcohol and illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin and even prescription drugs like Xanax (a common drug of abuse), valium, Adderall, anti-depressants such as Wellbutrin, and even some over the counter so called safe herbal medications to lose weight can build the perfect storm to provoke a convulsion.

whether there were other precipitating factors? factors like been sleep deprived, dehydrated, drinking on an empty stomach all help in adding their two cents to build the perfect storm leading to an alcohol induced convulsion.

is there an underlying tendency/predisposition to have a convulsion? this concept is a little difficult to explain but let me attempt to explain with an example. Let us assume you have underlying epilepsy. You are then more likely to suffer a convulsion in the setting of excessive alcohol use that say a person who does not have underlying predisposition to have a seizure. You may both consume the same drinks and the same amount of alcohol, still you remain at higher risk of suffering a convulsion than the other person.

I thank you for your question and wish you good health in the New Year 2011. It takes immense strength of character and determination to walk away a winner from an alcohol addiction.

Personal Regards,

Nitin Sethi, MD

Syncope Vs Seizure: the quest for an answer

One of the readers of my blog sent me an interesting query. Here is her history. My response to it follows. I have deleted her name and hidden her email address to maintain her confidentiality.


HISTORY

Hi! I was grocery shopping in Wal-mart when I had my episode. I was walking to the front of the store after shopping for about an hour. My vision kept blacking out. It was like someone just turned out the lights. I would be able to see again and I would be standing there staring at something. This happened about 4 or 5 times over a ten minute span. The next thing I knew I was waking up in the hospital. Apparently I hit the ground started convulsing, my eyes rolled back and I was foaming at the mouth. I bit the side of my tongue, my body was horribly sore the next couple of days, but I didn’t have any bladder issues. I had no memory of the seizure or what had happened. I kept going in and hour for the next couple of hours. I busted my head on the floor which required staples. I had memory problems and balance issues for the next week. I then made an appointment with a neurologist. He thinks I have syncope. He sent me for my EEG to rule out epilepsy, but we haven’t got the results back yet. While I was having my EEG I started having facial spasms during the flashing light portion of the test. I’m reading about syncope and some of it just doesn’t fit. I am a HUGE salt eater. I crave salty foods all day! So if that was it, wouldn’t my diet be treating the syncope? Also, my sister has epilepsy. Her seizures are triggered by flashing lights. I have never had a seizure before. I have passed out in the past, but it was because of hypoglycemia. I don’t have any issues with heat or pain or seeing blood. It just doesn’t affect me. I just don’t know if he’s got the correct diagnosis and would like someone else’s opinion. Thanks!

Dear A,
                 thank you for writing in to me.  Your history has intrigued me and hence I shall dwell over it a little before offering my humble opinion.  It goes without saying, this opinion is offered without taking your history in person and examining you.  You should follow what your doctor tells you.  He/ she shall be the best person to guide further diagnostic and management issues.  Your recent event had features of both syncope as well as a seizure/ convulsion. So what in your history points towards syncope?
PRODROMAL FEATURES: meaning things which you felt prior to passing out. You felt light headed, your vision was blurred/ tunneled/ kept going in and out (it always fascinates me how patients use different words to describe the same symptom). Prior to a syncopal event patients may feel as if they are about to pass out/ faint. They may look pale (all the blood was drained out from the face), they may feel/ complain that their legs feel weak/ woobly.
I am uncertain what to make of the staring episodes which followed soon after. By staring do you mean you were unable to concentrate (may occur with syncope) or do you mean you had impairment in your level of consciousness and awareness ( goes more towards a seizure).
Anyways let us move forward. The next thing you remember is waking up in the hospital. From the bystander history, you were noticed to have convulsive movements. During the seizure, you lost body tone leading to a hard fall which cracked open your skull.  During the convulsion itself your eyes rolled back into your head, you foamed from the side of the mouth and bit the side of your tongue. Yes biting the side of the tongue goes more towards a seizure than biting the tip of your tongue. I am not sure who figured that one out though. You did not have loss of bladder control. Post the seizure, you were not yourself  for the next few days with a slow return to the baseline.
There I think I have summarized your history well. Well what happens next? Your history has features of both syncope as well a seizure.  I would have asked a few more questions:
1) did you feel anything prior to the event. We call these auras. Any strange smell, any strange taste and so forth.
2) have you ever had a seizure before.
3) any history of febrile convulsions?
4) are you prone to syncope: were you dehydrated, sick with the flu and so forth.
Well let us move forward. I am taking you step by step as I work through this history. So the doctor ordered an EEG (test to look at the brain waves). Why the EEG? Well simple if the EEG shows abnormal brain waves (I use the word misfiring of the brain), it points towards a seizure. If the EEG is normal, it may point towards syncope. That said and done, patients with seizures may have a normal EEG.
We do not have the EEG results. But during the test you mention something happened to you. Your face started twitching while photic stimulation was been carried out (flashing lights). Your sister has epilepsy and you say her seizures are triggered by flashing lights (usually patients who have primary generalized epilepsy have these kind of seizures).
So where does all this lead to?  My opinion: it is possible you have an underlying seizure disorder.
My recommendations: I would try my level best to rule out or rule in seizures. This may need a longer duration EEG study, if the first one is unrevealing. The decision to start anti-convulsant therapy shall be guided by all the above : history, examination findings, EEG findings and neuroimaging findings (CT scan or MRI brain).
THE BEST PERSON TO MAKE THAT DECISION–YOUR CURRENT DOCTOR AND NOT ME OVER THE INTERNET.  

Alcohol and seizures: few questions and their answers

One of the readers of my blog asked me a few very specific questions with respect to alcohol intake and seizures.  Many times your excellent questions and my answers to them get lost in the sea of information here. So I decided to post her questions and my reply to them as a main post. I feel many of you shall find them informative.  I have removed the reader’s name and email id.

T

35 y/o m with no significant medical hx has been a chronic binge drinker since the age of 20. Alcohol intake has increased more through the years (1-2 pints of whiskey 3-4 times/week including minimal beer intake). 3 years ago after a weekend of binging, which included cocaine, he had his first clonic-tonic seizure (that was witnessed). ER doc said it was d/t the cocaine. Since then he had stopped using cocaine but continued to have seizures after binging. It has been 3 years of multiple untreated gran mal, partial and/or focal seizures. It mostly happens a few days after stopping the liquor and/or when sleep deprived.

One evening while driving and NOT drinking, he crashed his car and does not remember any of it. At this point he has stopped drinking. 20 days clean and has had 1-2 focal seizures during sleep. How long does AWS last? Do you think his brain is affected by having so many untreated seizures? Should he get on anti-epilectic meds? If these are provoked seizures will an EEG even be worth it? The family has no history of epilepsy. Will his driving be affected? As a physician, do you have to report to the state if someone has provoked seizures or would this be a HIPA violation? Does taking the recommended dose of Nyquil have any affect on provoking a seizure during withdrawal? Would he have a high risk of reoccurrance?

Thank you for your time and advice.
T

braindiseases Dear T,
thank you for writing in. You ask specific questions and hence I shall answer them likewise.

Q: How long does AWS last?

A: acute alcohol withdrawal seizures occur about 24 to 48 hours after the last drink. Delirium tremens (during which the patients may have a flurry of seizures) peaks 72 hours after the last drink. We usually like to put patients on Librium or Ativan (lorazepam) to prevent AWS till we see no signs of autonomic instability (such as variations in blood pressure and heart rate), tremors and so forth.

Q: Do you think his brain is affected by having so many untreated seizures? Should he get on anti-epilectic meds? If these are provoked seizures will an EEG even be worth it?

A: while there is no study which clearly shows that the brain is damaged by seizures permanently (and I do not mean status epilepticus–where in neuronal death does occur unless seizures are controlled quickly), ongoing untreated seizures certainly are not desirable.
Whether he needs to be on long term anti-convulsant is a question that can only be answered after reviewing his history at length and after taking into consideration test results such as EEG and MRI brain.
We are assuming his seizures are provoked. It is also possible that he has an inherent epileptogenicity and the alcohol brings it out. Also during this long history,. he may have fallen and now have a secondary seizure focus in the brain. So yes the EEG is worthwhile.

Q: The family has no history of epilepsy. Will his driving be affected? As a physician, do you have to report to the state if someone has provoked seizures or would this be a HIPA violation?

A: The laws with respect to driving and epilepsy vary from state to state. In the state of NY where I practice, I am NOT mandated by law to report to the DMV (department of motor vehicles) that my patient has a seizure disorder. All I have to do is tell the patient that the law in NY is that ” you have to be seizure free on medications for one year before you can drive”. I do this and I document in the chart that I told the patient about not driving. It is left to the patient’s own good judgement that they shall heed my advise and not drive. In the state of NJ, the physician is mandated by law to report this to the DMV. The duration of time you have to be seizure free before you can drive also varies from state to state. The DMV website or the American Epilepsy Society website are good resources for more information.
Now suppose you come to know the patient is still driving (inspite of your advise). Moreover he is driving a school bus. What do you do then? Hmmm tricky and messy situation. Lives are at stake here. I shall confront (maybe not confront but approach) the patient with this information. If he still continues to drive, my responsibility to the public at large exceeds patient confidentality (HIPAA privacy rules). I can then approach the DMV directly.

Q: Does taking the recommended dose of Nyquil have any affect on provoking a seizure during withdrawal? Would he have a high risk of reoccurrance.

A: many medications can lower seizure threshold. I would double check on all his medications to see if he is taking anything which lowers his seizure threshold. The risk of recurrence can only be determined after a detailed history and taking tests like EEG and MRI brain into consideration.

Hope this helps.

Personal Regards,
Nitin Sethi, MD

Post traumatic epilepsy or seizures after head trauma

Post Traumatic Epilepsy

Nitin K Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10065

 

In this post I shall discuss the entity called post traumatic epilepsy/ post traumatic seizure disorder.  Epilepsy is a condition characterized by two or more seizures in a person’s lifetime. Broadly speaking epilepsy can be of two kinds:

1. Primary Epilepsy

2. Secondary Epilepsy

Patients who have primary epilepsy have seizures usually due to an underlying genetic predisposition. They do not have a secondary cause for their seizures and neuroimaging is usually normal.  On the other hands patients who have secondary epilepsy usually have seizures secondary to something (example secondary to brain tumor, secondary to an abscess in the brain, after a stroke and so forth). Under this category of secondary epilepsies is included post traumatic epilepsy (as the name suggests patients have seizures secondary to brain trauma).

Let me explain with the aid of an example.  Let us assume our patient (we shall call him Philip) is a 27-year-old healthy male with no significant medical or surgical history. Bikes are his passion especially Harleys.  Have you seen the ones they show on American Chopper. But we are digressing from our story line. Philip loves to ride them fast. A bright sunny Sunday morning finds him zipping down FDR drive at 80 mph.  With a bike under me, I felt like a real man. And then disaster strikes. Philip’s bike gets clipped by a speeding SUV. Philip is flung from the bike and hits the ground hard. Did I mention he was not wearing a helmet at this time. He is rushed to the nearest hospital. A lacerated spleen, couple of broken ribs and a fractured collar bone. Not too bad you might say. He shall live to ride another day. But all is not so rosy. Philip does not regain consciousness and does not respond to verbal commands.  A quick CT scan yields the answer. Philip has suffered extensive bleeding in the brain (neuro trauma). He is admitted to the neurological ICU. Recovery is painfully slow and after a months stay in the hospital, Philip is discharged to a sub-acute rehab facility. Alls well that ends well? Not quite done yet, I am afraid. Six months after his motorbike accident, Philip is again rushed back to the hospital after a witnessed tonic clonic convulsion. He is evaluated by a neurologist (like me) and a diagnosis of post traumatic epilepsy is made.

So what exactly is post traumatic epilepsy? As the name suggests epilepsy develops after head injury. Seizures can occur anytime after head injury. If they occur immediately after head injury it is referred to as immediate post traumatic epilepsy (also called impact seizures, as seizures occur at the time of impact to head).  If seizures occur within the first month after head injury it is referred to as early post traumatic epilepsy. Patients may have their first seizure as long as 18 months after head trauma. This is referred to as late post traumatic epilepsy.

Patients develop post traumatic epilepsy as a result of scarring of brain tissue.  They usually have convulsions. The treatment of post traumatic epilepsy is essentially the same as that of any other type of epilepsy. Once the seizure type is characterized, the right anti-epileptic drug is usually effective in controlling the seizures.

Is it a seizure or is it syncope? the story continues….

                      Is it a seizure or is it syncope? the story continues….

So our story ended with John in the ER. As many of you rightly guessed the first case scenario represents a typical syncopal episode while in the second case John had a generalized convulsion (seizure).

So what are the points in the history which favor syncope and which favor a seizure?

When a patient presents to a neurologist with an episode of loss of consciousness, it is imperative that we try to elucidate the underlying cause. As you can imagine the treatment of both these conditions is very different.

Syncope (fainting) can come either from the heart (we call this cardiogenic syncope) or from the brain (we call this neurogenic syncope or vasodepressor syncope or more commonly as vasovagal syncope). So for example you can faint (have a syncopal episode) if you have a sudden massive heart attack, or a transient arrhythmia of the heart (the heart beat fluctuates). As you can imagine these are potential lethal causes and hence patient’s who present with syncope are frequently evaluated for these cardiac conditions. Tests like ECG, prolonged 24 ECG (electrocardiogram) and sometimes an echocardiogram are ordered. Vasovagal syncope on the other hand is more benign and our patient John likely had a vasovagal syncopal episode in case scenario No 1. Another classical example of vasovagal syncope is when someone faints when he or she sees blood for the first time (frequently reported in medical students when they go into the OR for the first time).

 So what are the points which favor syncope?

1. Feeling light-headed prior to the episode

2. Feeling dizzy as if you are about to faint.

3. Blurring of vision at the onset of the episode ( Doctor I felt light headed, a little woosy, my vision started to go black and then I passed out)

4. Syncope usually occurs in an upright position (patient is usually standing when it occurs). Syncopal patients usually do not shake (that is they do not have convulsive movements. There is an entity called syncopal convulsion where in the episode starts with a syncope but then goes on to become a seizure. I shall not go into the details here as then it shall become confusing).

5. Usually the loss of consciousness is of very short duration. Once they fall to the ground and the blood rushes to their brain (as gravity has been eliminated), they rapidly regain consciousness.

6. They are not confused after the episode. They come around rapidly and know where they are (they are not confused and disoriented after the episode).

7. Syncopal patients usually do not bite their tongue or have loss of bladder control (wet their patients) during an episode.

What are the points which favor a seizure?

1. Patients who have a seizure do not get the type of prodomal symptoms which patients with syncope do. Meaning they do not feel light-headed, dizzy as if they are about to pass out. Seizures frequently occur out of the blue with no warning whatsoever. That said and done, some patients with seizures which come from the temporal lobe may get an aura. Multiple different types of auras have been reported in temporal lobe epilepsy (smell of burning rubber, metallic taste in the mouth, a rising sensation in the tummy among many others).

2. Seizures can occur in any position-standing, sitting, lying in bed and frequently in sleep too.

3. Patients who have a convulsion shake. We call this tonic clonic movements of the arms and legs (first they are noticed to stiffen up, the eyes may roll up or get deviated to one side and later jerking of the arms and legs occur).

4. The tongue may get caught inbetween the teeth as the patient is stiffening up or when they are having a convulsion (shaking). This frequently leads to a tongue bite (usually on the lateral border of the tongue).

5. When the patient stiffens up, the muscles of the urinary bladder go into a spasm and the patient may end having loss of bladder control (wet their pants). This may also occur when the seizure finally ends and the muscles relax.

6. Frequently patients after a seizure are confused and disoriented for a while. We call this the post ictal state.

7. Seizures frequently lead to loss of muscle tone. The patient falls and hits the ground hard. This may lead to cranio-facial injuries and even fractures. Patients with syncope on the other hand do not fall hard, rather thay seem to ease themselves to the ground.

As you can see now syncope and seizures may resemble each other superficially but a good history is usually able to clarify the diagnosis.

Sudden Unexpected Death In Epilepsy

Sudden Unexpected Death In Epilepsy

Nitin K Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10021

I recently read about the tragic death of John Travolta’s son from a reported seizure while on a family vacation. The news got extensive coverage on prime time television networks but unfortunately none of the news segments provided any credible information about death from a seizure or epilepsy in general.  While I respect medical journalists and the work they do, I feel they owe a bigger moral obligation not just in getting news across to the public but also going a step forward in researching the topic and utilizing the news story  to spread awareness about a disease. The tragic death of Mr. Travolta’s son limelights epilepsy and its at times unexpected tragic consequences.

When people think of a seizure or epilepsy, death as a possible consequence does not come to mind as conjured by other illnesses like cancer. Seizures usually are discreet episodes, guaranteed they are frightening to witness (if you happen to be a family member or a bystander). The patient falls down (if standing at the time of seizure onset), shakes and jerks violently, eyes roll up, drools and may bite his or her tongue. After a minute or two (which for the caregiver or bystander may seem like an eternity), the person stops shaking and may infact appear to fall asleep and breathe loudly. Emergency medical staff are there by then and take the person to the hospital.

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL YOU MAY SAY!!!

Well yes and no. As I tell most of my patients and their concerned family members, most seizures end on their own and do not need any “active intervention” (meaning giving them some drug to stop the seizure). By the time EMS arrive, the seizure is already over and the patient is confused and disoriented (we call this the post-ictal stage meaning the stage after the ictus/seizure is over). There are a few patients in whom the seizure may not stop or in whom one seizure is followed in rapid succession by another seizure without regaining consciousness in between. These patients are said to be in “status epilepticus” and need urgent medical attention to abort the onoing seizures. These are the patients who the EMS give intravenous medications to stop the seizure (you can read about this more on my website http://braindiseases.info), once these patients reach the ER, intravenous medications to abort the seizure are administered.

But coming back to where I started most seizures do abort on their own. That is what I tell my patients and their caregivers. As a physician the seizure itself does not worry me so much, it is the circumstances surrounding the seizure which can prove to be fatal. When a person is having a seizure, his or her brain is malfunctioning (think of it as a massive short circuit in the neural pathways), he is thus unable to fend for himself.  Seizures are usually associated with a loss of body tone, a standing patient thus may fall and injure himself. A hard fall on the head may result in a fatal head injury due to intracranial hemorrhage. A person standing next to a subway line in New York City may fall onto the tracks after a seizure episode and get hit by an oncoming train, he or she may suffer a fatal car crash if the seizure happens to occur while they are driving (this of course poses a risk to other motorists and pedestrians who share the road. There are rules with respect to driving with epilepsy and these vary from state to state). Deaths have occurred due to submersion and drowning if the patient has a seizure while swimming or while taking a bath in a tub.

So what I tell my patients is this

“YOU DO NOT WANT TO GET CAUGHT WITH A SEIZURE AT THE WRONG PLACE AND AT THE WRONG TIME”.

There is a further entity called “Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy” also called SUDEP. SUDEP refers to patients with epilepsy/ seizure disorder who are found dead due to no “apparent reason”.  These usually are epilepsy patients who on the surface seem to be fine and one day are found dead. At times they may go to bed okay but are found in bed dead the next morning. A lot of research and studies have looked into SUDEP to try to determine its etiology and thus help in better identification of those epilepsy patients who are more prone to SUDEP. While we still do not know what causes SUDEP, we now do know certain facts.

There is neural control of heart rate (meaning parts in the brain control our heart rate). Hence seizures which arise from certain areas in the brain such as the insular cortex may at times be accompanied with bradycardia (that is the heart slows down and in extreme cases may even stop for a few seconds to minutes). Thus ictal bradycardia or ictal asystole may be one of the mechanism underlying SUDEP.  In other documented cases of SUDEP, patient was found to have severe laryngeal muscle spasm  thus impairing respiratory effort.

So who are the patients who are at high risk for SUDEP? These are usually patients who have poorly controlled epilepsy (seizure control is inadequate on current therapy). Patients who have seizures associated with ictal bradycardia and/or laryngeal spasm remain at exceptionally high risk.

Epilepsy is a relatively common neurological disorder. It imposes a high price in terms of socio-economic costs and quality of life issues. Every attempt should be made to attain good seizure control (thankfully we now have many options both medical therapy ( anti-seizure medications) as well as surgical, you can read about them on my website http://braindiseases.info).

The battle is still to be won but together we can!!!