Seizures happen when your brain cells, which communicate through electrical signals, send out the wrong signals. Having just one seizure doesn't mean you have epilepsy. Generally, several seizures are needed before there is a diagnosis of epilepsy.
Epilepsy can happen at any age, but it is most common in the elderly. Many children with epilepsy outgrow the condition. However, even mild seizures that happen more than once should be treated, because they could cause harm if they happen while you are driving, walking, or swimming, for example.
Signs and Symptoms
Seizures are classified in two main categories:
Partial seizures -- involve a part of the brain. They can be:
- Simple partial seizures -- Symptoms may include involuntary twitching of the muscles or arms and legs; changes in vision; vertigo; and having unusual tastes or smells. The person does not lose consciousness.
- Complex partial seizures -- Symptoms may be like those of partial seizures, but the person does lose awareness for a time. The persona may do things over and over, like walking in a circle or rubbing their hands, or stare into space.
Generalized seizures -- involve much more or all of the brain. They can be:
- Absence seizures (petit mal) -- Symptoms may include staring and brief loss of consciousness.
- Myoclonic seizures -- Symptoms may include jerking or twitching of the limbs on both sides of the body.
- Tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal) -- Symptoms may include loss of consciousness, shaking or jerking of the body, and loss of bladder control. The person may have an aura or an unusual feeling before the seizure starts. These seizures can last from 5 - 20 minutes.
What Causes It?
Seizures are caused by overexcited nerve cells in the brain that fire abnormally. In about half of cases, the cause isn’t known. Some things that can cause seizures include:
- Head injury
- Genes, in some cases -- researchers have linked specific genes to epilepsy
- Injury to the brain before birth
- Some medical conditions, such as meningitis
- Stroke and heart attack
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your doctor will take your medical history and ask about anything that may have caused your seizure, such as an injury to your head. Your doctor will also ask about risk factors -- for example, family or personal history of seizures. Be sure to tell your doctor how you felt before and after the seizure. Your health care provider will do blood tests and an electroencephalogram (EEG), which records the electrical activity in your brain. You may also have a computerized tomography (CT) scan, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
The goal of therapy is to stop the seizures, reduce any drug side effects, stop seizures from coming back, and help you readjust to your home life and work after a seizure.
Your health care provider will probably prescribe medication to help control your seizures. About 30 - 70% of people who have one seizure will have a second seizure within 1 year. You may need to try several medications or combinations before you find one that works for you. There are a number of drugs available to help treat seizures, including anticonvulsants (anti-seizure drugs) and sedatives.
If medications do not work, ask your doctor about a procedure called vagus nerve stimulation.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
You should always see a doctor if you or your child has a seizure. Taking some supplements and changing one's diet may help some people reduce how often they have seizures, but the same supplements may make some people's seizures happen more often.
Never take any supplements without your doctor's knowledge. You should never take any prescription medication without your doctor's knowledge, either. Make sure to tell all of your health care providers of any medications, herbs, and supplements you are using.
Nutrition and Supplements
A ketogenic diet -- high in fat and low in protein and carbohydrates -- may help some people control the frequency of seizures. It has been studied most often for children, and seems to work better for children than adults. A doctor needs to closely monitor this diet, both for side effects and to make sure you are following its rigid structure. You may need to take vitamin and mineral supplements, because this diet is very restricted.
Some studies have shown a connection between food allergies and seizures in some children, but the evidence isn’t clear. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and any supplements that have stimulating effects. A holistically oriented health care provider may help you identify possible food allergies.
Some supplements may make certain anti-seizure medications less effective. Be sure to ask your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements.
- Taurine is an amino acid that may be involved in the brain's electrical activity and is often low in people with seizures. It acts like GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid, 500 mg two times per day), another amino acid that is often low in people with seizures. But there is no scientific evidence that taking either supplement will reduce seizures. Taurine may interact with many medications. Do not take taurine of GABA supplements without your doctor's supervision.
- Folic acid levels may drop during seizures and may be low in some people with seizures. But taking extra folic acid may make anticonvulsant drugs less effective, raising your risk for more seizures. Do not take folic acid without your doctor's supervision.
- Vitamin B12 -- Some anticonvulsant drugs may cause low levels of B12 in the body.
- Vitamin E may help reduce the frequency of seizures when used with prescription drugs, but some studies show that it doesn't help. Do not take vitamin E if you take blood-thinners. Vitamin E can interact with a number of medications, so ask your doctor before taking it.
- Anticonvulsant drugs may cause low levels of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K, so people who take anticonvulsant drugs should ask their doctor about taking a supplement. Calcium can interfere with anticonvulsant drugs, so do not take calcium without your doctor's supervision.
Herbs are a way to strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should work with your health care provider to diagnose your problem before starting any treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 - 4 cups per day. You may use tinctures alone or in combination as noted.
Many of the herbs used to treat seizures have sedative effects, and they interact with other herbs, supplements, and prescription medications. Take these herbs only under a doctor's supervision, so that they can monitor side effects and interactions. Most of these herbs have been used traditionally for seizures, but lack scientific evidence showing they work.
- Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) -- an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat epilepsy. Some poor quality studies seemed to show that bacopa may reduce the frequency of seizures. Better studies are needed.
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) -- a sedative herb. Ask your doctor to help you find the right dose. Chamomile can make the effects of other sedatives stronger. It also interacts with many other medications.
- Kava (Piper methysticum) has been used traditionally as a sedative herb for seizures. However, there is some concern that kava can be very damaging to the liver even if taken for a short time. Take kava only under your doctor's supervision, so he or she can monitor liver function. Kava may interact with a number of other drugs. Do not take kava if you have Parkinson's disease.
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a sedative and anticonvulsive. It interacts with several medications, herbs, and alcohol, so take it only under your doctor's supervision. Valerian is sometimes combined with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), another herb that has sedative effects.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) may help treat and prevent seizures.
Do not take the following herbs:
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and ginseng (Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius) have caused seizures in some people.
- There is some evidence that GLA, a kind of fatty acid found in evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis) and borage oil (Borago officinalis), may worsen epilepsy, although researchers aren't sure.
- St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) interacts with a number of medications and herbs used to treat epilepsy.
- White willow (Salix alba) may interact with epilepsy medications.
Avoid these essential oils:
- Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)
- Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
- Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
- Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Sage (Salvia officinalis)
- Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
- Thuja (Thuya occidentalis)
- Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium)
Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. Professional homeopaths, however, may recommend one or more of the following treatments for seizure disorders based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
- Belladonna -- for seizures that occur in individuals with a high fever
- Causticum -- for individuals whose seizures may be triggered by receiving bad news or by feelings of sadness such as from grief; this remedy is most appropriate for individuals who tend to feel hopeless and fearful
- Cicuta -- for individuals who develop seizures after a head injury
- Cuprum metallicum -- for individuals whose seizures are accompanied by mental dullness; may be triggered by menstruation or vomiting
Chiropractic, osteopathic, or naturopathic manipulation may help, especially in children or for seizures after head trauma.
In some cases, specific acupressure points may have been used to stop seizures. However, one study for people with severe epilepsy found they didn't work. Chinese medical literature has examples of treating seizure disorders through traditional acupuncture, as well as scalp and auricular (ear) acupuncture or a combination of all these techniques. If you decide to have acupuncture, work with a qualified acupuncturist and let all your other health care providers know about your treatments.
Finding the right dosage or drug combinations for you make take some time. Your health care provider will monitor you until your seizures are under control.
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Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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