Category: Epilepsy


The teacher has called and says Lisa is daydreaming in school. You have noticed some episodes of “daydreaming” at the dinner table. Does she have absence seizures? Does she have atypical absence seizures? Does she have complex partial seizures or is she daydreaming?The questions your physician will want to ask you about Lisa are:• “How frequently is she having these episodes?” Daydreaming would occur infrequently and be situational. Absence seizures may occur many times a day. Complex partial seizures rarely occur more than several times a day or a week.• “How do these episodes begin?” While most seizures have an abrupt onset, occasionally complex partial seizures begin slowly and a warning precedes them. Daydreaming usually does not start abruptly.• “Can you interrupt these episodes?” Daydreaming can easily be interrupted by calling Lisa’s name or by physically touching her. Seizures, on the other hand, cannot be interrupted.• “How long does the episode last?” Daydreaming can go on until something else catches a child’s attention. Absence seizures rarely last more than fifteen seconds. Complex partial seizures may last up to several minutes.• “What does the child do during the episode?” While daydreaming or during absence seizures, the child is likely to stare into space. During complex partial seizures, the child is likely to smack her lips, pick at her clothes, or display other automatisms.• “What is the child like when she ‘comes back?’” The child who is daydreaming or having an absence seizure immediately is alert. The child with a complex partial seizure is usually confused for seconds or minutes.• “Does the child remember what was said during the episode?” While daydreaming, the child may be aware of what is happening but not pay attention. During a seizure, the child is not fully aware of what is happening around her.• “Do the spells occur only at special times?” If they happen only, say, in math or geography class, the child is likely to be daydreaming. If they occur at random times or whenever the child is tired, they are more likely to be seizures.With these careful observations, you and your physician can usually differentiate the type of episode.*73\208\8*


Women whose epilepsy started when they were children very often find that when they reach puberty the nature of their epilepsy changes. About two-thirds of women experience some sort of change. Usually there is an increase in seizure frequency, or a new type of seizure develops. But in about a third of cases the change is positive; seizure frequency decreases and seizures may even stop altogether. As a general rule, absence seizures tend to become less frequent or to stop. The chances of a woman’s epilepsy getting worse at puberty are greater if she reaches puberty later than average, or if her epilepsy started early in childhood, or if she has an abnormal EEG and has previously had a great many generalized tonic clonic seizures.
Does epilepsy affect periods:
It is very unusual for a woman’s periods to be affected if she develops epilepsy. However, a few women have seizures which affect the part of the brain that regulates the menstrual cycle, and in this case they may be more likely than other women to have menstrual problems such as irregular periods. In addition, some anti-epileptic drugs, particularly sodium valproate (Epilim) affect the menstrual cycle.
Do periods affect epilepsy?
Nearly everyone who has epilepsy discovers that the frequency of their seizures varies. There will be times when you seem to have more seizures than at others. So it is not surprising that quite often a woman notices that she seems to have more seizures around the time of her period. However, if you keep a seizure diary you will probably find that this does not happen every month. Seizures are nearly always more irregular and unpredictable than this.

Catamenial epilepsy
A few women (probably less than 10 per cent of all women with epilepsy) do have what is called catamenial epilepsy — a type of epilepsy in which every month there is a regular and definite increase in seizure frequency around menstruation. Often they start to have regular, recurrent ‘bad patches’ of seizures just before they reach puberty. When their periods start it is clear that they have catamenial epilepsy.
Catamenial epilepsy is probably somehow related to the relative levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone which are produced during the menstrual cycle, though it is difficult to find a clear relationship. The normal pattern is that during the first half of the menstrual cycle, oestrogen is the main hormone produced. During the second half of the cycle both oestrogen and progesterone are produced. Oestrogen is known to have a seizure-provoking effect, while progesterone is an anticonvulsant and tends to protect against seizures.
But even if hormones play a part, they cannot provide a complete explanation, because there does not seem to be any noticeable difference in the hormonal changes between women who have catamenial epilepsy and those whose epilepsy is no worse at the time of their periods. Another explanation is that pre-menstrual tension may play a part, and that women with catamenial epilepsy are more likely to suffer PMT. Stress and anxiety are known to precipitate seizures and the mood changes of PMT may have something to do with their seizure increase at that time. At the moment, however, this is only a theory.

Another worry many women have is that epilepsy may affect their ability to conceive. Fertility rates are slightly reduced in both men and women with epilepsy. Women may find it more difficult to become pregnant if seizures affect the part of the brain that regulates the menstrual cycle and they experience irregular periods, or if they are taking anticonvulsants which affect the menstrual cycle. Yet although you may take a little longer to become pregnant, these factors will not stop you conceiving. If after a year of trying you are still not pregnant, talk to your doctor. Modern methods of fertility treatment should solve the problem.
Hormonal contraception (‘The Pill’)
Hormonal contraception is a safe and very effective form of birth control. It can be taken orally, in the form of the combined pill (which contains two hormones, oestrogen and progesterone) or the progesterone-only ‘mini-pill’. It can also be given as a slowly absorbed (depot) injection or an implant under the skin. These two methods have the advantages that the implant or injection lasts several weeks, and you do not have to remember to take a pill every day.
Because it is so effective, hormonal contraception, usually in the form of the Pill, is the method of first choice for many women. However, if you have epilepsy, you need to discuss its pros and cons with your doctor before you decide it is the right method for you.
If you are taking sodium valproate, vigabatrin, lamotrigine, gabapentin, clobazam, clonazepam or ethosuximide, there is no problem and you can take the oral contraceptives, or use contraceptive injections or implants, in the normal way. However, a few widely-used anticonvulsants (phenytoin, phenobarbitone, carbamazepine, and primidone) make the liver break down the hormones in these contraceptive preparations more rapidly, reducing their effectiveness. The sign that the contraceptive effect of the pill has failed is that you get ‘breakthrough’ bleeding.
You are not prevented from using hormonal contraception if you are taking any of these latter drugs, but for them to be effective you may need to take a higher than usual dose of the oral contraceptive, or receive more frequent injections or implants. The dose of the Pill, for example, may need to be increased two or three times until you have a cycle with no breakthrough bleeding. Until you have a cycle without breakthrough bleeding you will need to use a condom or some other form of contraception.
The larger dose of the contraceptive will not have any more side-effects than the normal one, because the excess hormone is being broken down and disposed of by the liver.
A few women with epilepsy find that the Pill makes their epilepsy worse. But it is more likely that going on the Pill will reduce your seizure frequency by helping to reduce pre-menstrual seizures. Some women therefore decide to take the pill continually on a 28 day cycle without the usual seven days’ break.
If it is to be effective, the pill has to be taken regularly, every day and at the same time every day. Remembering to take it may be a problem if you have frequent seizures. If you want a hormonal method of contraception, but do not feel that you can rely on your memory to take the Pill regularly, contraceptive injections or implants may be a better solution. These are hormones with a long-term effect and are either given by injection or implanted beneath the skin. This must be done by a doctor or specially-trained family planning nurse.
Emergency contraception
Emergency contraception used to be known as the ‘morning after’ pill, but in fact it need not be taken the morning after unprotected intercourse. Ideally, it should be taken within 3 days (72 hours) of having sex. However, it may even work if taken within five days; sperm can survive for a couple of days, and so it is always possible that you may have ovulated and conceived two days after having sex. The pill consists of two hormonal pills taken immediately, and another two taken 12 hours later. You can use emergency contraception if you are taking anticonvulsant medication, but, depending on the drug you are taking, you may need a slightly larger dose. If you tell the doctor who gives it to you that you have epilepsy, and what drugs you are on, your anticonvulsant medication can be taken into account.

The menopause is often another time of seizure change though, as ever, epilepsy is so unpredictable that it is difficult to say which direction the change will take. Seizures may increase or decrease in frequency, go into remission, recur if they have been in remission or there may be no change at all. And a few women who have never had seizures before in their lives may start to have them at the menopause, though no one knows the reason for this.
If your seizures have always been related to your periods they will probably improve during the menopause. You can also feel optimistic about improvement if your seizures began late in life and have always been infrequent. However, there is some evidence that in women who have an earlier than average menopause seizure frequency tends to remain unchanged, or to increase.

One of the inevitable results of old age is that bones grow less dense and more brittle (a condition called osteoporosis). Until women reach the menopause, oestrogen gives some protection against thinning of the bones, and many doctors advise women to have hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to prevent osteoporosis. This is especially important for women who have a family history of osteoporosis. It is also very important for women with epilepsy, because anticonvulsant drugs, particularly phenytoin, tend to cause calcium deficiency and increase the risk of brittle bones.
HRT contains the same hormones as the contraceptive pill, and so you may need to take a higher dose than normal to be effective if you are taking phenytoin, phenobarbitone, carbamazepine, or primidone. In a few women HRT increases seizure frequency, though if you have this problem it may be possible for you to find a different form of HRT which does not have this effect.


Everyone has some kind of sexual problem at some time in their life, and people with epilepsy are no exception. If you have epilepsy you are almost bound to have to deal with, at some time or another, the same sexual problems that most people occasionally encounter. Sex is not always perfect. Many men have erection problems, many women find it difficult to reach orgasm. People vary very much in their need for sex, their interest in it, and even in their enjoyment of it.
In addition to these ‘normal’ problems which everyone has, people who have epilepsy may also have sexual anxieties and occasionally problems which are related to their epilepsy. Many, perhaps most, of the special sexual problems of people with epilepsy are a by-product of anticonvulsant medication. But most of these problems can be solved. Epilepsy need not stop you starting a family, or affect your chances of marriage or of having normal sexual relationships.


“What about water sports—swimming, rowing, and sailing?”
Water sports are all potentially dangerous sports since even adults can drown. When anyone swims or dives there should always be adequate supervision. These sports present a minimally greater risk for the child with epilepsy, proportional to the frequency and the type of seizures. When these sports are competitive, the risk is probably decreased, since the competitors are being closely observed. In boating, anyone can capsize, tumble into the water, or be knocked unconscious and into the water by the boom. All sailors should wear life jackets. Then they will be protected, even if they have seizures.
The same premise applies to all children. If a child could be injured in a sport, then there should be adequate protection to prevent or minimize an injury and adequate supervision to treat the injury if an accident occurs. For the child with seizures, the same is true. If a child has just started having seizures or has just started on new medication, then more supervision should be provided, and perhaps even a bit of over-protection until the seizures are controlled or the degree of seizure control is ascertained. When the child has fewer seizures, or no seizures at all, he doesn’t need extra protection.


Frontal lobe seizures are very resistant to drug treatment and so people with this type of epilepsy are often considered for surgery. But just as with temporal lobe surgery, they will have to be carefully assessed first of all to make sure they are suitable candidates for surgery.
If the seizures are all arising from the frontal lobe and the MRI scan shows that there is a lesion, then two operations can be done. The first is to remove only the lesion in the hope that this will stop the seizures. The second option is to remove a large chunk of the frontal lobe (frontal lobectomy). This is the operation that is usually done if the lesion is large.
If no lesion is found on the MRI scan, the next step will be to insert depth electrodes while the patient is under a general anaesthetic. Leashes of thin electrode wires are inserted into the frontal lobe through a burr hole in the skull. These are kept in place for one to two weeks, and the EEG activity from them is measured continuously, until enough seizures have been captured to make it clear where they are arising. If they are arising from a single epileptic focus, even though its exact size is uncertain this focus may be removed by taking away a large area of frontal lobe surrounding the focus.
Success of frontal lobe surgery
Frontal lobe surgery is not usually as successful as temporal lobe surgery. If an actual lesion is found by MRI scanning and removed, about 40 per cent of people who have the operation will lose their seizures. If, on the other hand, the MRI shows no clear structural lesion although the EEG shows that there is a focus from which seizures are arising, only between 20 and 30 per cent of patients having the operation will lose their seizures. Unfortunately removal of a frontal lobe often causes personality changes, and this is something that anyone who is considering the operation should discuss in detail with their doctor before making a final decision to go ahead.