The treatment of epilepsy of all types can be divided into four parts: the use of antiepileptic drugs, the surgical excision of epileptic foci and other surgical measures, the removal of causative and precipitating factors, and the regulation of physical and mental activity.
Antiepileptic Drugs—General Principles
The goal of drug treatment is to create a seizure-free state if possible and with the fewest side effects. In the past, a few seizures a year had been considered adequate control but with the bevy of newer medications it is advisable to aspire to the goal of eliminating seizures. On the other hand, it is an error to make the patients so mentally dulled as to interfere with function at work or school. The choice and dose of medication depends on many factors including sex, age, other medications being used by the individual, and renal or hepatic dysfunction or other medical conditions and psychiatric that might be favorably influenced by a particular agent. As a general rule, starting in the lower dose range and attempting to provide twice daily or daily administration are favored.
In approximately 70 percent of all patients with epilepsy, the seizures are controlled completely or almost completely by medications; in an additional 20 to 25 percent, the attacks are significantly reduced in number and severity. Table 16-5 lists the most commonly used drugs along with their dosages, effective blood levels, and serum half-lives. Because of the long half-lives of phenytoin, phenobarbital, and ethosuximide, these drugs need be taken only once daily, preferably at bedtime. Valproate and carbamazepine have shorter half-lives, and their administration should be spaced during the day. It is useful to be familiar with the serum protein-binding characteristics of antiepileptic drugs and the interactions among these drugs, and between antiepileptic and other drugs.
Table 16-5 Common Antiepileptic Drugs ||Download (.pdf)
Table 16-5 Common Antiepileptic Drugs
PRINCIPAL THERAPEUTIC INDICATIONS
SERUM HALF-LIFE, H
EFFECTIVE BLOOD LEVEL,a μG/ML
Major antiepileptic used as monotherapy
Generalized tonic-clonic, partial, absence, myoclonic
Generalized tonic-clonic, partial, absence, myoclonic
Generalized tonic-clonic, partial
3–5 (8 for infants)
Generalized tonic-clonic, partial
Adjuvant and special-use anticonvulsants
Generalized tonic-clonic, atypical absence, myoclonic, partial
Generalized tonic-clonic, partial
40–60 Units daily
Anticonvulsants for status epilepticus (initial loading or continuous infusion doses shown)c—phenytoin and phenobarbital used in doses higher than shown above
Certain drugs are somewhat more effective in one type of seizure than in another, and it is necessary to use the proper drugs in optimum dosages for different circumstances. Initially, only one drug should be used and the dosage increased until sustained therapeutic levels have been attained. If the first drug does not control seizures, a different one should be tried, but frequent shifting of drugs is not advisable; each should be given an adequate trial before another is substituted. A general approach to the choice of drug in certain common forms of epilepsy is given in Tables 16-6 for adults and 16-7 for children, but it must be noted that there are a number of drugs that may be appropriate in each circumstance.
Table 16-6 Choices of Antiepileptic Drugs by Type of Adult Seizure Disorder ||Download (.pdf)
Table 16-6 Choices of Antiepileptic Drugs by Type of Adult Seizure Disorder
Lamotrigine, levitiracetam, carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine
Topiramate, levetiracetam, zonisamide
Focal (with or without secondary generalized)
Valproate, lamotrigine, oxcarbazepine, levitiracetam, lacosamide,
Phenytoin, fosphenytoin, propofol, levetiracetam
Table 16-7 Choices of Antiepileptic Drugs in Childhood Seizure Disorders ||Download (.pdf)
Table 16-7 Choices of Antiepileptic Drugs in Childhood Seizure Disorders
Topiramate, levetiracetam, ethosuximide
Valproate, levetiracetam, oxcarbazepine
Lamotrigine, vigabatrin, topiramate
It is difficult to give definitive guidance on combining medications for refractory seizures. Several general principles are, however, worth noting. First, it is sensible to avoid drugs combinations with similar putative mechanisms because their side effects may be additive, for example, the addition of lamotrigine to carbamazepine or of phenytoin to carbamazepine may not be ideal but at the same time, it should be mentioned that the mechanism of action has little influence on clinical effectiveness. Second, the clinician should be aware of known interactions through metabolic pathways such as valproate combined with either lamotrigine or phenobarbital as they share the cytochrome P450 degradation pathway. Third, although it is appropriate to use drugs that are known to be effective for the class of seizures under treatment, it is often necessary to extend the choices beyond these restrictions.
The therapeutic dose for any given patient must be determined, to some extent by clinical effect, guided by measurement of serum levels, as described below. Inquiry regarding seizure control and drug side effects is more valuable than adjustment of medication based solely on drug concentrations. Blood for serum levels is ideally drawn in the morning before breakfast, before the first ingestion of anticonvulsants ("trough levels"), a practice that introduces consistency in measurement. Not uncommonly, a drug is discarded as being ineffective when a slight increase in dosage would have led to suppression of attacks. On the other hand, drug levels can be helpful in detecting non-compliance or poor absorption in instances of inadequate seizure control. The management of seizures is facilitated by having patients chart their daily medication and the number, time, and circumstances of each episode. Some patients find it helpful to use a dispenser that is filled with medications with sufficient pills to last the week. This indicates to the patient whether a dose had been missed and whether the supply of medications is running low.
Table 16-5 indicates the effective serum levels for each of the commonly used antiepileptic drugs. In general, higher serum concentrations of drugs are necessary for the control of focal seizures than for generalized ones. The usual blood level assay is of the total concentration of the drug; this is not a precise reflection of the amount of drug entering the brain, because—in the case of the most widely used anticonvulsants—the large proportion of drug is bound to albumin and does not penetrate nervous tissue. Also, in patients who are malnourished or chronically ill or who have a constitutional reduction in proteins, there may be intoxication at low total serum levels. Certain antiepileptic drugs also have active metabolites that are not measured by methods ordinarily used to determine serum concentrations but nonetheless produce toxicity. This is particularly true for the epoxide of carbamazepine. The situation may be further complicated by interactions between one anticonvulsant and the metabolites of another, as, for example, the inhibition of epoxide hydrolase by valproic acid, leading to toxicity through the buildup of carbamazepine epoxide. In circumstances of unexplained toxicity in the face of conventionally obtained serum levels that are normal, measurement may be undertaken of the levels of free drug and the concentration of active metabolites by chromatographic techniques.
The use of saliva for measurement of free drug levels has merit but has not been adopted frequently in practice. The measurements correlate with free drug levels. It has the advantage of allowing the patient to collect a sample before breakfast and avoid venipuncture.
Finally, the pharmacokinetics of each drug plays a role in toxicity and the serum level that is achieved with each alteration in the dose. This is particularly true of phenytoin, which, as the result of saturation of liver enzymatic capacity, has nonlinear kinetics once serum concentration exceeds 10 mg/mL. For this reason, a typical increase in dose from 300 to 400 mg daily results in a disproportionate elevation of the serum level and toxic side effects. Elevations in drug concentrations are also accompanied by prolongation of the serum half-life, which increases the time to reach a steady-state concentration of phenytoin after dosage adjustments. Contrariwise, carbamazepine is known to induce its own metabolism, so that doses adequate to control seizures at the outset of therapy are no longer effective several weeks later.
Antiepileptic Drug Interactions
Antiepileptic drugs have manifold interactions with each other and with a wide variety of other drugs. Although many such interactions are known, only a few are of clinical significance and most pertain to older generations of medications, requiring adjustment of drug dosages (see Kutt). Among interactions between anticonvulsant drugs, valproate often leads to accumulation of active phenytoin and of phenobarbital by displacing them from serum proteins, as well as slightly elevating serum total levels. Agents that alter the concentrations of antiepileptic medications are chloramphenicol, which causes the accumulation of phenytoin and phenobarbital, and erythromycin, which causes the accumulation of carbamazepine. Antacids reduce the blood phenytoin concentration, whereas histamine blockers used to reduce gastric acid output do the opposite. Salicylates reduce the total plasma levels of anticonvulsant drugs but elevate the free fraction by displacing the drug from its protein carrier. More importantly, warfarin levels are decreased by the addition of phenobarbital or carbamazepine and may be increased by phenytoin although, with this last drug there may be unexpected alterations of the international normalized ratio (INR) in either direction. Enzyme-inducing drugs such as phenytoin, carbamazepine, and barbiturates can greatly increase the chance of breakthrough menstrual bleeding in women taking oral contraceptives and may lead to failure of contraceptive medications, and adjustments in the amount of estradiol must be made. These interactions are emphasized further below under the discussions of each agent.
Hepatic function greatly affects antiepileptic drug concentrations, since most of these drugs are metabolized in the liver. Serum levels must be checked more frequently than usual if there is liver failure, and with hypoalbuminemia it is advisable to obtain free drug levels for reasons just mentioned. Renal function has an indirect effect on the concentrations of the commonly used antiepileptics, but some newer agents, such as levetiracetam, gabapentin, and pregabalin, are excreted through the kidneys and require dosage adjustment in cases of renal failure. The main renal effects have to do with alterations in protein binding that are induced by uremia. In end-stage renal failure, serum levels are not an accurate guide to therapy and the goal should be to attain adequate free concentrations of, for example, 1 to 2 mg/mL. In addition, uremia causes the accumulation of phenytoin metabolites, which are measured with the parent drug by enzyme-multiplied immunoassay techniques. In patients who are being dialyzed, total blood levels of phenytoin tend to be low because of decreased protein binding; in this situation it is also necessary to track free (unbound) phenytoin levels. Because dialysis removes phenobarbital and ethosuximide, dosage of these drugs may have to be increased. Decreased phenytoin levels are also known to occur during viral illnesses, and supplementary doses are occasionally necessary.
Teratogenic Effects of Antiepileptic Medications
Because it is essential to prevent convulsions in the pregnant epileptic woman, anticonvulsant medication should not be discontinued or arbitrarily reduced, particularly if there have been recent convulsions. The conventional drugs (phenytoin, carbamazepine, phenobarbital, valproate, lamotrigine) are all tolerated in pregnancy. Plasma levels of most of these drugs, both the free and protein-bound fractions, fall slightly in pregnancy and are cleared more rapidly from the blood. The main practical issues pertains to the potential teratogenicity of most of the drugs with valproate having slightly more risk than the others, and a slight reduction in IQ in children born of mothers who had been exposed to valproate during pregnancy.
The most common teratogenic effects have been cleft lip and cleft palate, but infrequently also a subtle facial dysmorphism ("fetal anticonvulsant syndrome"), similar to the fetal alcohol syndrome. The risks are highest with valproate. In general, the risk of major congenital defects is low; it increases to 4 to 5 percent in women taking anticonvulsant drugs during pregnancy, in comparison to 2 to 3 percent in the overall population of pregnant women. These statistics are essentially confirmed in the large study by Holmes and colleagues, conducted among several Boston hospitals. When all types of malformations were included, both major and minor, 20 percent of infants born to mothers who took anticonvulsants during pregnancy showed abnormalities, compared to 9 percent of mothers who had not taken medications. These authors identified "midface hypoplasia" (shortened nose, philtrum, or inner canthal distance) and finger hypoplasia as characteristic of anticonvulsant exposure; these changes were found in 13 and 8 percent of exposed infants, respectively. However, it should be emphasized that in large surveys, major malformations have occurred in only 5 percent of infants exposed to antiepileptic drugs. The infants born of a group of women with epilepsy who had not taken anticonvulsants during pregnancy showed an overall rate of dysmorphic features comparable to that in control infants, but there was still a 2 to 3 percent rate of facial and finger hypoplasia. This risk is shared more or less equally by all the major anticonvulsants again, with concern that valproate is associated with a higher rate. Aggregating eight databases, Jetnik and colleagues found a number of malformations of the nervous and somatic systems to be increased in comparison to other antiepileptic drugs.
Of equal or greater concern has been the findings by Meador and colleagues that in utero exposure to valproate was associated with lower IQs (by 9 points) compared to lamotrigine in children at the age of 4. It is not clear if the effect persists after this age. Children who had been exposed to phenytoin or to carbamazepine also had slightly lower IQs but this difference was ostensibly accounted for by lower maternal IQ. Some studies, including the one by Meador and colleagues (2011) suggest that folate may have an ameliorating effect on this detrimental effect at age 3, whereas there is an uncertain benefit in preventing fetal malformations.
The risk of neural tube defects is also slightly increased by anticonvulsants during pregnancy, and greatest for the use of valproate. It had been considered to be reduced by giving folate before pregnancy has begun (it is not clear if this is true for valproate), but epilepsy experts avoid the use of valproate during pregnancy altogether. These risks are greater in women taking more than one anticonvulsant, so that monotherapy is a desirable goal. Furthermore, the risk is disproportionately increased in families with a history of these defects. Some of the newer anticonvulsants should probably be used cautiously until greater experience has been obtained. As each new anticonvulsant has been introduced over the years, there has usually been a tentative claim of reduced teratogenic effects, often proven later to be incorrect. Claims have been made of safety in this regard for lamotrigine, causing many specialists to change from the more conventional drugs to this one in women who anticipate becoming pregnant, but lamotrigine levels tend to fall precipitously during pregnancy. A report by Cunningham and colleagues using registry information suggests that the incidence of major birth defects in the fetuses exposed to lamotrigine during the first trimester is just under 3 percent, similar to risk estimates for the general population but also close to the 3 to 4 percent risk derived from most registries of women on anticonvulsants. Polytherapy with lamotrigine and valproate raised the estimate of risk to 12 percent.
If a woman with seizure disorder has been off epilepsy medications for a time before getting pregnant and seizes during the pregnancy, the best choice of medication currently may be phenytoin for its advantage in rapid seizure control, or levetiracetam. Exposure of the fetus late in gestation poses few teratogenic risks. If a woman discovers she is pregnant while on an antiepileptic drug, changing medications is unlikely to reduce the chances of birth defects, even for valproate, but this drug retains the risk of lower IQ in the child. The special case of eclamptic seizures is managed by infusion of magnesium. Epileptic women of childbearing age should be advised that higher doses of the estradiol component of birth control agents are required or they may be exposed to the issues of becoming pregnant while antiepileptic medications.
Skin Eruptions from Antiepileptic Drugs
Rashes are the most frequent idiosyncratic reactions to the drugs used to treat epilepsy. The aromatic compounds (phenytoin, carbamazepine, phenobarbital, primidone, and lamotrigine) are the ones most often responsible. Furthermore, there is a high degree of cross-reactivity within this group, particularly between phenytoin, carbamazepine, and phenobarbital, and, possibly, lamotrigine. The problem arises most often in the first month of use. The typical eruption is maculopapular, mainly on the trunk; it usually resolves within days of discontinuing the medication. More severe rashes may develop, sometimes taking the form of erythema multiforme and Stevens-Johnson syndrome, or even toxic epidermal necrolysis, especially with lamotrigine.
Certain polymorphisms in HLA genes (HLA-B*1502) have been associated with an increased risk of these types of severe skin reactions, particularly those of Asian ancestry but probably also in Caucasians, in whom this genotype is rare. Another allele HLA-A* 3101 may be associated with skin eruptions in Caucasians (McCormack et al), but it (HLA-B 1502) does not seem reasonable at this time to screen non-Asian patients for such an infrequent complication. Another rare systemic hypersensitivity syndrome associated with the use of antiepileptic medications is one of high fever, rash, lymphadenopathy, and pharyngitis. Eosinophilia and hepatitis (or nephritis) may follow.
If any of these reactions require that one of the aromatic drugs be replaced, valproate, gabapentin, topiramate, or levetiracetam are reasonable substitutes, depending, of course, on the nature of the seizures.
Discontinuation of Anticonvulsants
Withdrawal of anticonvulsant drugs may be undertaken in patients who have been free of seizures for a prolonged period. There are few firm rules to guide the physician in this decision. One plan, applicable to most forms of epilepsy, is to obtain an EEG whenever withdrawal of medication is contemplated. We have taken the approach that if the tracing is abnormal by way of showing paroxysmal activity, it is generally better to continue treatment. However, a normal EEG may not be helpful in making the decision to discontinue medications. A prospective study by Callaghan and colleagues showed that in patients who had been seizure-free during 2 years of treatment with a single drug, one-third relapsed after discontinuation of the drug, and this relapse rate was much the same in adults and children and whether the drug was reduced over a period of weeks or months. The relapse rate was lower in patients with absence and generalized-onset seizures than in patients with focal seizures. Another study by Specchio and colleagues gave results similar to those of the large Medical Research Council Antiepileptic Drug Withdrawal Study—namely, that after 2 years on a single anticonvulsant during which no seizures had occurred, the rate of relapse was 40 percent 2.5 years later and 50 percent at 5 years after discontinuation; this compared to a seizure recurrence rate of 20 percent for patients remaining on medication. Other epileptologists have suggested that a longer seizure-free period is associated with a lesser rate of relapse.
Often in practice, the suggestion to stop medications after a lengthy seizure free period comes form the patient, for example if pregnancy is planned or there are untoward side effects but otherwise, the change is never risk free and therefore is infrequently impelled by the physician. Decisions regarding the cessation of medication are also tempered by patient's desire to continue driving and their concern that another seizure may prevent a return to driving.
Patients with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy, even those with long seizure-free periods, should probably continue medication life-long, but there have been no thorough studies to support this dictum. In young women with this disorder who plan or a likely to become pregnant, changing from valproate to levetiracetam may be sensible. The appropriate duration of treatment for postinfarction epilepsy has not been studied, and most neurologists continue to use one drug indefinitely. Interestingly, epilepsy caused by military brain wounds tends to wane in frequency or to disappear in 20 to 30 years, thereafter no longer requiring treatment (Caveness). In contrast, childhood uncomplicated absence seizures do not require lifelong treatment.
A curious and unexplained lesion in the splenium of the corpus callosum has been detected in patients who have had their antiepileptic drug(s) withdrawn in the previous few days. A review of 16 patients by Gürtler and colleagues did not find a clinical correlate for this change. A broad range of drugs was implicated and the lesion was most prominent on FLAIR MRI.
Specific Drugs in the Treatment of Seizures
Phenytoin, carbamazepine, levetiracetam, and valproate are representative antiepileptic drugs and are more or less equally effective in the treatment of both generalized and partial seizures (see Table 16-5 for typical initial dosages). Valproate is probably less effective in the treatment of complex partial seizures. The first two of these drugs putatively act by blocking sodium channels, thus preventing abnormal neuronal firing and seizure spread. Lamotrigine is emerging as a popular alternative for partial seizures with a different side effect profile from the other three.
Because carbamazepine (or the related oxcarbazepine) and levetiracetam have somewhat fewer side effects, one or the other is preferred as the initial drug by many neurologists, though phenytoin and valproate have very similar therapeutic and side-effect profiles. Carbamazepine and valproate are probably preferable to phenytoin for epileptic children because they do not coarsen facial features and do not produce gum hypertrophy or breast enlargement. In many cases, phenytoin or carbamazepine alone will control the seizures. If not, the use of valproate (which facilitates GABA activity) alone, or the combined use of phenytoin and carbamazepine, produces better control. In others, the addition of valproate to carbamazepine may prove effective. Because of the high incidence of myoclonic epilepsy in adolescence, it has been our practice to use valproate as the first drug in this age group. Weight gain, menstrual irregularities (see below) during the period of initiation of valproate, and its teratogenic effects may also figure into the decision regarding the choice of initial drug for otherwise uncomplicated seizures in young women.
Most of the commonly used antiepileptic drugs cause, to varying degrees, a decrease in bone density and an increased risk of fracture from osteoporosis in older patients, particularly in women. Several mechanisms are probably active, among them, induction of the cytochrome P450 system, which enzymatically degrades vitamin D. No specific recommendations have been offered to counteract this effect of bone loss, but we have advised patients to take calcium supplements or one of the bisphosphonates if there is no contraindication, or to check bone density at regular intervals.
Finally, several reports and meta analyses over the past decades have suggested that antiepileptic drugs might increase the incidence of suicide, both in individuals with epilepsy and psychiatric patients. The issue may never be entirely resolved because of confounding factors but a patient level-analysis performed by Arana and colleagues showed no such relationship in epilepsy once underlying depression was accounted for.
Oral, intramuscular, and intravenous forms are available. Rash, fever, lymphadenopathy, eosinophilia and other blood dyscrasias, and polyarteritis are manifestations of idiosyncratic phenytoin hypersensitivity; their occurrence calls for discontinuation of the medication. Overdose with phenytoin causes ataxia, diplopia, and stupor. The prolonged use of phenytoin often leads to hirsutism (mainly in young girls), hypertrophy of gums, and coarsening of facial features in children. A clinical trial conducted by Arya and colleagues suggests that folate supplementation may prevent gingival hyperplasia in children. Chronic phenytoin use over several decades may occasionally be associated with peripheral neuropathy and probably with a form of cerebellar degeneration (Lindvall and Nilsson); it is not clear if these are strictly dose-related effects or idiosyncratic reactions. An antifolate effect on blood and interference with vitamin K metabolism have also been reported, for which reason pregnant women taking phenytoin (and in fact most other antiepileptic drugs) should be given folate supplementation and vitamin K before delivery and the newborn infant also should receive vitamin K to prevent bleeding. Phenytoin should not be used together with disulfiram (Antabuse), chloramphenicol, sulfamethizole, phenylbutazone, or cyclophosphamide, and the use of either phenobarbital or phenytoin is not advisable in patients receiving warfarin (Coumadin) because of the undesirable interactions already described. Choreoathetosis is a rare idiosyncratic side effect. Fosphenytoin for intramuscular and intravenous administration allows somewhat faster attainment of serum levels and may have minor advantages in special circumstances, especially the availability of the IM route. Intravenous phenytoin and fosphenytoin are discussed further in the section on status epilepticus.
This drug causes many of the same side effects as phenytoin, but to a slightly lesser degree. Mild leukopenia is common, and there have been rare instances of pancytopenia, hyponatremia (inappropriate antidiuretic hormone [ADH]), and, rarely, diabetes insipidus as idiosyncratic reactions. It is advisable therefore, that a complete blood count be done before or soon after treatment is instituted and that counts are rechecked regularly. Oxcarbazepine, a more recently introduced analogue of carbamazepine, has fewer of these side effects than the parent drug, especially marrow toxicity, but its long-term therapeutic value is not as well established. Hyponatremia has been reported in 3 percent of patients taking oxcarbazepine. Should drowsiness or increased seizure frequency occur, this complication should be suspected.
All preparations of this drug are occasionally hepatotoxic, an adverse effect that is usually (but not invariably) limited to children 2 years of age and younger. The use of valproate with hepatic enzyme-inducing drugs increases the risk of liver toxicity. However, mild elevations of serum ammonia and mild impairments of liver function tests in an adult do not require discontinuation of the drug. An increasingly emphasized problem with valproate has been weight gain during the first months of therapy. In one study there was an average addition of 5.8 kg, and even more in those disposed to obesity. In addition, menstrual irregularities and polycystic ovarian syndrome may appear in young women taking the drug, perhaps as a consequence of the aforementioned weight gain. Pancreatitis is a rare but important complication of valproate. Tremor and slight bradykinesias have been seen and they vaguely simulate parkinsonism. The major issues, however, pertain to its use in pregnancy as discussed earlier.
An intravenous form of valproate is available and may be useful in status epilepticus. The maximum recommended rate of administration is 3 mg/kg per min.
Introduced as an antiepileptic drug in 1912, phenobarbital is still highly effective, but because of its toxic effects—drowsiness and mental dullness, nystagmus, and staggering, as well as the availability of better alternatives—it is seldom used in adults. The adverse effects of primidone are much the same. Both drugs may provoke behavioral problems in developmentally delayed children and they are still used to advantage as an adjunctive anticonvulsant and as primary therapy in infantile seizures.
Lamotrigine closely resembles phenytoin in its antiseizure activity but has different features relating to toxicity. It functions by selectively blocking the slow sodium channel, thereby preventing the release of the excitatory transmitters glutamate and aspartate. It is effective as a first-line and adjunctive drug for generalized and focal seizures, and may be an alternative to valproate in young women because it does not provoke weight gain and ovarian problems. The main limitation to its use has been a serious rash in approximately 1 percent of patients, requiring discontinuation of the drug, and lesser dermatologic eruptions in 12 percent. It should be pointed out that some registries have reported considerably lower rates of these complications. The slow introduction of the medication may reduce the incidence of drug eruptions (see below). Rare cases of reversible chorea have been reported, especially with the concurrent use of phenytoin. Combined use with valproate greatly increases the serum level of lamotrigine.
This is a relatively novel drug with uncertain mechanism that has been useful in the treatment of both partial and generalized seizures. The agent affects the SV2A synaptic vesicle protein, but how this relates to its antiepileptic properties is still being investigated. It is well tolerated if initiated slowly, but produces considerable sleepiness and dizziness otherwise and if used at high doses. It also may produce irritability and depression. A major advantage is that there are no important interactions with other antiepileptic drugs for which reason it is often chosen as a first-line agent in patients who have organ failure and require numerous medications, as well as those receiving hepatically-metabolized chemotherapeutics.
Other Antiepileptic Drugs
Two other drugs, gabapentin and vigabatrin, were synthesized specifically to enhance the intrinsic inhibitory system of GABA in the brain. Gabapentin is chemically similar to GABA, but its anticonvulsant mechanism is not known; it has an apparent effect on calcium channels. It is moderately effective in partial and secondary generalized seizures and has the advantage of not being metabolized by the liver. Vigabatrin inhibits GABA transaminase. Vigabatrin is no longer used in adults because of the side effect or retinal damage. Tiagabine is considered to be an inhibitor of GABA reuptake.
Topiramate, has much the same mode of action and probably a broader effectiveness as tiagabine. It will rarely cause serious dermatologic side effects, especially if used with valproate, and appears to induce renal stones in 1.5 percent of patients. Angle-closure glaucoma has also been reported as a complication. A minor problem has been the development of hyperchloremic metabolic acidosis.
Lacosamide, a potent drug for seizures that have a focal onset and generalize or remain focal, is currently used currently mainly as an adjunctive therapy. Like levetiracetam, its mechanism of action is not entirely known but it has been shown to modulate voltage-gated sodium channel activity. The main but infrequent side effects are headache and diplopia. The drug may prolong the P-R interval and worsen heart failure.
Ethosuximide and valproate are equally effective for the treatment of absence seizures, the former having fewer cognitive side effects according to a study by Glauser and colleagues. It is good practice, so as to avoid excessive sleepiness, to begin with a single dose of 250 mg of ethosuximide per day and to increase it every week until the optimum therapeutic effect is achieved. Methsuximide (Celontin) is useful in individual cases where ethosuximide and valproate have failed. In patients with benign absence attacks that are associated with photosensitivity, myoclonus, and clonic-tonic-clonic seizures (including juvenile myoclonic epilepsy), valproate is the drug of choice. Valproate is particularly useful in children who have both absence and grand mal attacks, as the use of this drug alone often permits the control of both types of seizures. The concurrent use of valproate and clonazepam has been known to produce absence status.
Zonisamide, similar to topiramate, seems to be useful for myoclonic epilepsy but its main use is currently as an adjuvant in al epilepsy. It is not a sodium channel blocker and can be taken in parallel with carbamazepine. Some clinicians have found it to produce fewer cognitive side effects than topiramate.
Treatment of Seizures in the Neonate and Young Child
This specialized area of neonatal seizures is discussed by Fenichel and by Volpe and in children by Guerrini. In general, phenobarbital has been preferred for seizure control in infancy. Probably the form of epilepsy that is most difficult to treat is the childhood Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Some of these patients have as many as 50 or more seizures per day, and there may be no effective combination of anticonvulsant medications. Valproic acid (900 to 2,400 mg/d) will reduce the frequency of spells in approximately half the cases. The newer drugs—lamotrigine, topiramate, vigabatrin—are each effective in approximately 25 percent of cases. Clonazepam also has had limited success. In the special case of Dravet syndrome, a disorder of the sodium channel, antiepileptic drugs that block that same channel are avoided.
In the treatment of infantile spasms, ACTH or adrenal corticosteroids had been used, but vigabatrin is now found to be as effective, including in patients with underlying tuberous sclerosis (see Elterman et al).
Recurrent generalized convulsions at a frequency that precludes regaining of consciousness in the interval between seizures (convulsive status) constitutes the most serious problem in epilepsy, with an overall mortality of 20 to 30 percent, according to Towne and colleagues, but probably lower in recent years. Some patients who die of epilepsy do so because of uncontrolled seizures of this type, complicated by the effects of the underlying illness or an injury sustained as a result of a convulsion. Rising temperature, acidosis, hypotension, and renal failure from myoglobinuria is a sequence of life-threatening events that may be encountered in cases of convulsive status epilepticus. Prolonged convulsive status (for longer than 30 min) also carries a risk of serious neurologic sequelae ("epileptic encephalopathy"). The MRI during and for days after a bout of status epilepticus may show signal abnormalities in the region of a focal seizure or in the hippocampi, most often reversible, but we have had several such patients who awakened and were left in a permanent amnesic state. The MRI changes are most evident on FLAIR and diffusion-weighted sequences. With regard to acute medical complications, from time to time a case of neurogenic pulmonary edema is encountered during or just after the convulsions, and some patients may become extremely hypertensive, making it difficult to distinguish the syndrome from hypertensive encephalopathy.
The etiologies of status epilepticus vary among age groups but all the fundamental causes of seizures are able to produce the syndrome. The most recalcitrant cases we have encountered in adults have been associated with viral or paraneoplastic encephalitis, old traumatic injury, and epilepsy with severe mental retardation. Stroke and brain tumor have, in contrast, been infrequent causes.
Treatment of Convulsive Status Epilepticus (Table 16-8)
Table 16-8 Approach to the Treatment of Status Epilepticus in Adults ||Download (.pdf)
Table 16-8 Approach to the Treatment of Status Epilepticus in Adults
Ensure adequate ventilation, oxygenation, blood pressure
Intubate if necessary, based on low oxygen saturation and labored breathing
Insert intravenous line
Administer glucose and thiamine in appropriate circumstances
Send toxic screen
Assess quickly for cranial and cervical injury if onset of seizures is unwitnessed
Immediate suppression of convulsions
Lorazepam or diazepam, 2 to 4 mg/min IV to a total dose of 10 to 15 mg with blood pressure monitoring when higher rates or doses are used
Initiation or reloading with anticonvulsants
Phenytoin 15–20 mg/kg IV at 25–50 mg/min in normal saline or fosphenytoin at 50 to 75 mg/min
General anesthetic doses of medication for persistent status epilepticus
Midazolam 0.2 mg/kg loading dose followed by infusion at 0.1 to 0.4 mg/kg/h or propofol 2 mg/kg/h
Further treatment if convulsions or electrographic seizures persist after several hours
May add valproate or phenobarbital 10 mg/min to total dose of 20 mg/kg as additional anticonvulsants intravenously, or carbamazepine or levetiracetam by nasogastric tube if there is gastric and bowel activity
Consider neuromuscular paralysis with EEG monitoring if convulsions persist
Pentobarbital 10 mg/kg/h
Inhalational anesthetics (isoflurane)
The many regimens that have been proposed for the treatment of status epilepticus attest to the fact that no one of them is altogether satisfactory and none is clearly superior (Treiman et al).
We have had the most success with the following program: When the patient is first seen, an initial assessment of cardiorespiratory function is made and an oral airway established. A large-bore intravenous line is inserted; blood is drawn for glucose, BUN, electrolytes, and a metabolic and drug screen. A normal saline infusion is begun and a bolus of glucose is given (with thiamine if malnutrition and alcoholism are potential factors). To rapidly suppress the seizures, we have used diazepam intravenously at a rate of about 2 mg/min until the seizures stop or a total of 20 mg has been given; alternatively, lorazepam, 0.1 mg/kg given by intravenous push at a rate not to exceed 2 mg/min, is now favored, being marginally more effective than diazepam because of its clinically longer duration of action (see Table 16-8).
Immediately thereafter, a loading dose (20 mg/kg) of phenytoin is administered by vein at a rate of less than 50 mg/min. More rapid administration risks hypotension and heart block; consequently, it is recommended that the blood pressure and electrocardiogram be monitored during the infusion. Phenytoin must be given through a freely running line with normal saline (it precipitates in other fluids) and should not be injected intramuscularly. A study by Treiman and colleagues has demonstrated the superiority of using lorazepam instead of phenytoin as the first drug to control status, but this is not surprising considering the longer latency of onset of phenytoin.
In the field, emergency medical technicians can administer lorazepam drug or midazolam. Attesting to the benefit of rapidly treating seizures, Silbergleit and colleagues have shown that intramuscular administration is slightly superior to the intravenous route simply because of the delay in inserting an intravenous line. Alldredge and colleagues showed that diazepines can be administered by paramedical workers in nursing homes with good effect in status epilepticus, terminating the seizures in about half of cases.
Nonetheless, a long-acting antiepileptic such as phenytoin must be given immediately after a diazepine has controlled the initial seizures. An alternative is the water-soluble drug fosphenytoin, which is administered in the same dose equivalents as phenytoin but can be injected at twice the maximum rate. Moreover, it can be given intramuscularly in cases where venous access is difficult. However, the delay in hepatic conversion of fosphenytoin to active phenytoin makes the latency of clinical effect approximately the same for both drugs.
In an epileptic patient known to be taking seizure medications chronically but in whom the serum level of drug is unknown, it is probably best to administer the full-recommended dose of phenytoin. If it can be established that the serum phenytoin is above 10 mg/mL, a lower loading dose may be advisable. If seizures continue, an additional 5 mg/kg is indicated. If this fails to suppress the seizures and status has persisted for 20 to 30 min, an endotracheal tube should be inserted and O2 administered.
Having emphasized the dangers of this syndrome, at each stage of treatment it is worthwhile considering if a refractory convulsive episode is of psychogenic, non-epileptic nature. The reader is referred to the previous section on this subject.
Several approaches have been suggested to control status epilepticus that persists after these efforts. At this stage we have resorted to the approach suggested by Kumar and Bleck of giving high doses of midazolam (0.2 mg/kg loading dose followed by an infusion of 0.1 to 0.4 mg/kg/h as determined by clinical and EEG monitoring). If seizures continue, the dose can be raised as blood pressure permits. We have used in excess of 20 mg/h because of a diminishing effect over days. This regimen of midazolam and phenytoin may be maintained for several days without major ill effect in previously healthy patients. Propofol given in a bolus of 2 mg/kg and then as an intravenous drip of 2 to 8 mg/kg/h is an effective alternative to midazolam, but after 24 h the drug behaves like a high dose of barbiturate and there may be hypotension. Prolonged use of propofol may precipitate hypertriglyceridemia-associated pancreatitis or a fatal shock and acidosis ("propofol syndrome").
Valproate and levetiracetam are available as intravenous preparations, making them suitable for administration in status, but their role in this circumstance has not been extensively studied. Another dependable approach is infusion of either pentobarbital, starting with 5 mg/kg, or phenobarbital, at a rate of 100 mg/min until the seizures stop or a total dose of 20 mg/kg is reached; a long period of stupor must be anticipated after. Hypotension often limits the continued use of the barbiturates, but Parviainen and colleagues were able to manage this problem by fluid infusions, dopamine, and neosynephrine.
If none of these measures controls the seizures, a more aggressive approach is taken to subdue all brain electrical activity by the use of general anesthesia. The preferred medications for this purpose have been pentobarbital or propofol, which, despite their moderate efficacy as primary anticonvulsants, are easier to manage than the alternative inhalational anesthetic agents. An initial intravenous dose of 5 mg/kg pentobarbital or 2 mg/kg propofol is given slowly to induce an EEG burst-suppression pattern, which is then maintained by the administration of pentobarbital, 0.5 to 2 mg/kg/h, or propofol, up to 10 mg/kg/h. Every 12 to 24 h, the rate of infusion is slowed to determine whether the seizures have stopped. The experience of Lowenstein and colleagues, like our own, is that most instances of status epilepticus that cannot be controlled with the combination of standard anticonvulsants and midazolam will respond to high doses of barbiturates or to propofol, but that these infusions cause hypotension and cannot be carried out for long periods.
Should the seizures continue, either clinically or electrographically, despite all these medications, one is justified in the assumption that the convulsive tendency is so strong that it cannot be checked by reasonable quantities of medications. However, a few patients in this predicament have survived and awakened, even at times with minimal neurologic damage depending on the underlying cause.
The volatile anesthetic agent isoflurane has also been used in these circumstances with good effect, as we have reported (Ropper et al), but the continuous administration of inhalational anesthetic agents is impractical in most critical care units. Halothane has been relatively ineffective as an anticonvulsant, but ether, although impractical, has in the past been effective in some. In the end, in patients with truly intractable status, one usually depends on phenytoin, phenobarbital (smaller doses in infants and children than are shown in Table 16-8), and on measures that safeguard the patient's vital functions. Ketamine infusions have been a last resort, in combination with a midazolam infusion. A few times over the years, we have also resorted to inducing ketosis in adults by manipulating the nutrition given through a nasogastric tube.
A word is added here concerning neuromuscular paralysis and continuous EEG monitoring in status epilepticus. With failure of aggressive anticonvulsant and anesthetic treatment, there may be a temptation to paralyze all muscular activity, an effect easily attained with drugs such as pancuronium, while neglecting the underlying seizures. The use of neuromuscular blocking drugs without a concomitant attempt to suppress seizure activity is inadvisable. If such measures are undertaken, continuous or frequent intermittent EEG monitoring is essential; this may also be also helpful in the early stages of status epilepticus in that it guides the dosages of anticonvulsants required to suppress the seizures.
In the related but less-serious condition of acute repetitive seizures, in which the patient awakens between convulsions, a diazepam gel, which is well absorbed if given rectally, is available and has been found useful in institutional and home care of epileptic patients, although it is quite expensive. A similar effect has been attained by the nasal or buccal (transmucosal) administration of midazolam, which is absorbed from these sites (5 mg/mL, 0.2 mg/kg nasally; 2 mL to 10 mg buccally). Midazolam may be preferred among the diazepines for transmucosal use because it produces somewhat less respiratory depression than the others in the class and has been more effective at controlling seizures according to a study by McIntyre and colleagues. Still, only half were controlled. These approaches have found their main use in children with frequent seizures who live in supervised environments, where a nurse or parent is available to administer the medication.
Absence status should be managed by intravenous lorazepam, valproic acid, or both, followed by ethosuximide. Nonconvulsive generalized status is treated along the lines of grand mal status, usually stopping short of using anesthetic agents (see Meierkord). In the case of epilepsia partialis continua, typically a difficult condition to control, a balance must be found between stopping the phenomenon and the risk of overuse of medications that can produce stupor. The patient must be involved by way of determining how troubling the movements are to him.
Surgical Treatment of Epilepsy
The surgical excision of epileptic foci that have not responded to intensive and prolonged medical therapy is being used with increasing effectiveness in a growing number of specialized epilepsy units. At these centers, it has been estimated that approximately 25 percent of all patients with epilepsy are candidates for surgical therapy and more than half of these may benefit from extirpation of the epileptic cortical focus. With increasing experience and standardized approaches, especially in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, it has been suggested that many patients are waiting too long before the surgical option. A perspective that may promote surgery in even more patients is the observation that approximately 60 percent of patients with focal seizures will respond to a conventional anticonvulsant, but that among the remainder, few will respond to the addition of a second or third drug.
However, considerable effort, time and technology are required to determine the site of epileptic discharge and the method of safe removal of the cortical tissue. To locate the discharging focus requires a careful analysis of clinical, imaging, and EEG findings, often including those obtained by long-term video/EEG monitoring and, sometimes, intracranial EEG recording by means of intraparenchymal depth electrodes, subdural strip electrodes, and subdural grids. Recently, functional imaging, magnetoencephalography, and specialized EEG analysis have been introduced to supplement these methods.
The most favorable candidates for surgery are those with focal seizures that induce altered consciousness and a unilateral temporal lobe focus, in whom rates of cure and significant improvement approach 90 percent in some series but overall, are probably closer to 50 percent after 5 years. A randomized trial conducted by Wiebe and colleagues gave representative results after temporal lobectomy of 58 percent of 40 carefully studied patients remaining seizure-free after 1 year, in contrast to 8 percent on medication alone. Furthermore, as reported by Yoon and colleagues, among those patients who remain free of seizures for 1 year after surgery, more than half are still free of seizures after 10 years and most of the remainder had one or fewer episodes per year. It should be emphasized that most of the patients who underwent surgery in these studies still required anticonvulsant medication. Excision of cortical tissue that contains a structural lesion outside of the temporal lobe accomplishes complete seizure-free states in approximately 50 percent. Taking all seizure types together, only approximately 10 percent of patients obtain no improvement at all and less than 5 percent are worse. The matter of resection of areas of focal cortical dysplasias in children is a highly specialized area. It has been indicated that the histologic features of the dysplasia are important determinants of the success of surgery (Fauser et al).
Other surgical procedures of value in highly selected cases are sectioning of the corpus callosum, which is for the most part palliative, and hemispherectomy, which may be curative in special circumstances. The most encouraging results with callosotomy have been obtained in the control of intractable partial and secondarily generalized seizures, particularly when atonic drop attacks are the most disabling seizure type. Removal of the entire cortex of one hemisphere, in addition to the amygdala and hippocampus, has been of value in children, as well as in some adults with severe and extensive unilateral cerebral disease and intractable contralateral motor seizures and hemiplegia. Rasmussen encephalitis, Sturge-Weber disease, and large porencephalic cysts at times fall into this category. Surgical, focused radiation, or endovascular reduction of arteriovenous malformations may reduce the frequency of seizures, but the results in this regard are somewhat unpredictable (see Chap. 34).
This technique has found some favor in cases of intractable partial and secondarily generalizing seizures. A pacemaker-like device is implanted in the anterior chest wall and stimulating electrodes are connected to the vagus at the left carotid bifurcation. The procedure is well tolerated except for hoarseness in some cases. Several trials have demonstrated an average of 25 percent reduction in seizure frequency among patients who were resistant to all manner of anticonvulsant drugs (see Chadwick for a discussion of clinical trials). The mechanism by which vagal stimulation produces its effects is unclear, and its role in the management of seizures is still being defined. Stimulation of the cerebellum and of other sites in the brain has also been used in the control of seizures, with no clear evidence of success. They must currently be considered to be experimental.
Since the 1920s, interest in this form of seizure control has varied, being revived periodically in centers caring for many children with intractable epilepsy. Despite the absence of controlled studies showing its efficacy or an agreed upon hypothesis for its mechanism, several trials in the first half of the twentieth century, and again more recently, demonstrated a reduction in seizures in half of the patients, including handicapped children with severe and sometimes intractable episodes. The diet is used mainly in children between the ages of 1 and 10 years. The regimen is initiated during hospitalization by starvation for a day or two in order to induce ketosis, followed by a diet in which 80 to 90 percent of the calories are derived from fat (Vining). The difficulties in making such a diet palatable leads to its abandonment by about one-third of children and their families.
A summary of experience from the numerous trials of the ketogenic diet can be found in the review by Lefevre and Aronson and in the report of its use in 58 children by Kinsman and colleagues. They both concluded that the diet is effective in refractory cases of epilepsy in childhood, reducing seizure frequency in two-thirds of children and allowing a reduction in the amount of anticonvulsant medication in many. It has also been commented that some benefit persists even after the diet has been stopped. Nephrolithiasis is a complication in somewhat less than 10 percent of children, and this risk is particularly high if topiramate is being used.
Keotgenic diet is the main treatment for children with GLUT1 deficiency syndrome, as discussed earlier.
Safety and Regulation of Physical and Mental Activity
A person with incompletely controlled epilepsy should not be allowed to drive an automobile. Only a few states in the United States and most provinces of Canada mandate that physicians report patients with seizures under their care to the state motor vehicle bureau. Nonetheless, physicians should counsel such a patient regarding the obvious danger to himself and others if a seizure should occur while driving (the same holds for the risks of swimming unattended). What few data are available suggest that accidents caused directly by a seizure are rare and, in any case, 15 percent have been the result of a first episode of seizure that could not have been anticipated. In some states where a driver's license has been suspended on the occurrence of a seizure, there is usually some provision for its reinstatement—such as a physician's declaration that the patient is under medical care and has been seizure-free for some period of time (usually 6 months or 1 to 2 years). The Epilepsy Foundation website can be consulted for updated information regarding restrictions on driving, and this serves as an excellent general resource for patients and their families (http://www.efa.org).
The most important factors in seizure breakthrough, next to the abandonment of medication or a natural reduction of serum levels of medication, are loss of sleep and abuse of alcohol or other drugs. The need for moderation in the use of alcohol must be stressed, as well as the need to maintain regular hours of sleep. Advice to collegians about moderating alcohol is particularly important.
With proper safeguards, even potentially more dangerous sports, such as swimming, may be permitted. However, operating unguarded machinery, climbing ladders, or taking baths behind locked doors are not advisable; such a person should swim only in the company of a good swimmer. There is concern about epileptic mothers bathing their infants without additional safety guards.
Psychosocial difficulties are common and must be identified and addressed early. The stigma of epilepsy remains an issue in society. Advice and reassurance to attempt to pursue a normal life will aid in preventing or overcoming any feelings of inferiority and self-consciousness of many younger patients with epilepsy. However, the situation is rarely so simple and patients and their families may benefit from more extensive counseling.