Seizures associated with alcohol intake: to abstain or not to abstain that is the question

A reader of my blog wrote in to me. As has been the trend, I try to answer each and every question though lately I have to admit I have fallen back in this quest mostly due to constraint of time. I promise to be more timely in my replies going forward.

 

Here is his question. My answer to it follows:

 

HI, I was 21 when I had a seizure, following a weekend long music festival and drinking heavily and consuming amphetamines. Had about 5 or 6 following this up to the age of 25, mostly following drinking heavily and sometimes consuming amphetamines and/or diazepam. Have not taken any illegal substances since and now in my 30′s. Still drink regularly. No seizures and spent a few years taking a very low dose-100/200mg of epilim chrono(sodium valporate). Have not taken medication for 4 yrs approx. A junior doctor told me(while the consultant had left the room to fetch something) that he had studied this for his theses and it was very common for young adult males to “develop” seizures but assured me I would grow out of it, which appears so far(touch wood) to be true. Is there any truth in this? Is my case prob related to drink/illegal substance misuse?

 

S

 

 

Brain diseases reply:

 

Dear S,

Thank you for writing in to me at www.braindiseases.wordpress.com. I shall answer your question to me in a unique way. Here we go.

 

As a neurologist with interest in epilepsy I frequently encounter patients with history similar to yours. After a night of heavy drinking (usually different types of alcohol are consumed over a short course of time), at times along with other illicit drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and more commonly prescription drugs such as Xanax and Valium (diazepam), lo and behold the person is witnessed to have a generalized convulsion soon there after (either that night itself or early next morning). The first encounter these patients have with the health care system is in the ER to which they present or are brought to by the EMS for evaluation. Now imagine that you are a physician in the ER and evaluate such a patient in the middle of the night. You are pressed for time. What shall be your assessment and plan? You shall order a few basic blood tests and a CT scan of the brain. CT scan comes back normal and the basic labs are normal too. Most of the times these patients are discharged from the ER after starting them on an anticonvulsant  (sodium valproate, phenytoin (Dilantin) and levetiracetam (Keppra) are the most commonly chosen drugs) with advice to follow up with a neurologist like me.

 

Now you may think that this “case” is closed but that is a fallacy.

 

Many questions remain unanswered:

 

  1. Was the seizure indeed induced by alcohol and the combination of illicit drugs? How sure are we of this fact? :  if this is indeed a seizure induced by alcohol and illicit drug use then surely the patient does not need an anticonvulsant drug. If he stops drinking/binging and stops illicit drug use he shall not have any more seizures.
  2. How long should the anticonvulsant medication continue?
  3. Can he drink a “little” amount or is alcohol completely off the bargaining table? Does he have to abstain for life?
  4. Who was the actual culprit—alcohol alone Vs alcohol in excess Vs alcohol and illicit drug combination Vs illicit drug by itself?
  5. Does the patient have an underlying seizure disorder (tendency to have seizure/ underlying epilepsy) and that alcohol/illicit drug combo was just the fuse. Such a patient of course shall warrant treatment with an anticonvulsant. Again more questions: which anticonvulsant and for how long? Does he need to be treated for life? If he takes an anticonvulsant can he again start drinking?

 

There is no one right answer to the above questions. No one size fits all model here. The answer to each has to be personalized to the patient at hand. Fortunately to answer the above questions as a neurologist I do not need expensive tests. All I need to do is to spend time with the patient and get a thorough history. In some cases I may order an electroencephalogram (EEG).

 

The rest is easy. Hope you found my answers insightful.

 

Nitin Sethi, MD

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