How Alcohol Causes Seizures

Drinking has a complex link to seizures. Although most people with alcohol-linked seizures experience them during withdrawal, others get them while drinking heavily. Because drinking impacts the brain, it can have an impact on chemicals in the brain that control seizures. This is especially true if you drink heavily because small or moderate amounts of alcohol are not linked to seizure. If you or a loved one has a history of seizures or alcohol withdrawal, learning about the link between drinking and seizures is important.

Ways Alcohol Can Cause Seizures

Drinking impacts many chemicals in the brain like gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA. This chemical has a relaxing influence on the brain. One of GABA’s functions is to prevent seizures. Most of the time, because drinking enhances GABA’s effects, the brain is even more relaxed than normal. This effect is often called central nervous system depression. However, because the brain is so relaxed, it becomes extra sensitive to stimulation.

If you suddenly stop drinking, the brain can easily go into overdrive because it has become reliant on drinking. In some cases, a seizure can result. Withdrawal symptoms tend to get worse the more a person goes through them. Experts believe that repeated withdrawal can cause permanent brain changes that make seizures more likely. Types of seizures linked to drinking include:

  • Seizures from alcohol abuse: Over the long term, drinking can cause an increased risk of brain problems, including seizures and irreversible brain damage. Although rare, it may be possible to get a seizure from becoming drunk.
  • Seizures from alcohol poisoning: Drinking too much can cause vomiting, diarrhea and excessive urination. Severe dehydration can result. Further, you may end up with abnormal blood levels of salt, calcium and magnesium. Both dehydration and these abnormal chemical levels can lead to a seizure and permanent brain damage.

Seizures From Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome, or alcohol withdrawal syndrome, can lead to complications like spasms. Not all spasms are equal in alcohol withdrawal syndrome. In some cases, symptoms may be mild, like a hand tremor or muscle twitch. However, more serious problems like seizures can also occur.

When muscle tremors happen in alcohol withdrawal syndrome, they start around 6 hours after the last drink. If a seizure occurs from alcohol withdrawal syndrome, it will most often happen within 12 to 48 hours. Therefore, it is possible for someone to start with muscle tremors and then progress to seizure. People with alcohol withdrawal syndrome seizures often have a history of alcohol withdrawal syndrome with complications. The most common type of alcohol withdrawal syndrome seizure is tonic-clonic. In this type of seizure, which lasts up to 3 minutes, symptoms include:

  • Muscle stiffness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Violently jerking limbs
  • A slow regaining of consciousness

Nobody can predict how severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome spasms will be, or if they will worsen into seizures. Because of this, you should not go through alcohol withdrawal syndrome on your own. Even if you only get mild twitching from alcohol withdrawal syndrome at first, the symptoms can worsen quickly. Therefore, alcohol withdrawal syndrome should take place under medical supervision.

Epilepsy and Alcohol

If you have epilepsy, drinking safely can be tricky. Many drugs to prevent seizures can be more dangerous to take if you drink because of drug interactions with alcohol. Further, if you have epilepsy and struggle with drinking, it may be hard to remember to take your epilepsy medications, which can further raise your chances of having a seizure. Few studies exist on this topic, but doctors think the safest epilepsy medications to take while drinking are:

  • Carbamazepine
  • Valproic acid
  • Gabapentin
  • Pregabalin
  • Topiramate

Because different types of epilepsy exist, doctors do not know if there is a safe amount you can drink. However, if you have controlled partial seizures and no history of a struggle with alcohol, doctors think that up to three drinks no more than three times a week may be safe.

Prevention of Alcohol-Induced Seizure Problems

The best way to prevent an alcohol withdrawal syndrome seizure is to make sure to go through withdrawal under a doctor’s care. When you are in the hospital or a medical facility, doctors often monitor your alcohol withdrawal syndrome using a test like the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol, or CIWA. The doctor will ask you about symptoms like:

  • Nausea
  • Tremor
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Feeling things on the skin that are not there
  • Hearing things that are not there
  • Seeing things that are not there
  • Headache
  • Memory

Your answers to these questions will be scored. Your doctor may then give you a medication to control your alcohol withdrawal syndrome symptoms depending on your CIWA score. Common medications used to prevent seizures in alcohol withdrawal syndrome include benzodiazepines like:

  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)

Alcohol Detox and Treatment

When you are ready to stop drinking, alcohol detox provides a place for your body to get rid of alcohol while you are under medical supervision. Doctors can treat alcohol withdrawal syndrome symptoms as they arise and monitor you closely. Medical detox is the first step to living a life free from drinking. However, detox alone cannot ensure that you will stay sober. Further treatment is preferred to make sure you have the tools you need to live your best alcohol-free life.

If you struggle with drinking, experts at the Columbus Recovery Center are here to help. Contact us today to learn how we can assist you as you begin recovery for alcohol use.

Sources:

Rehm Jurgen; et al. “Alcohol Use and Dementia: a Systematic Scoping Review.” Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, published January 5, 2019. Accessed September 1, 2019.

Trevisan Louis; et al. “Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal: Pathophysiological Insights.” Alcohol Health & Research World, published 1998. Accessed September 1, 2019.

Nardone, Raffaele; Brigo, Francesco; Trink, Eugen. “Acute Symptomatic Seizures Caused by Electrolyte Disturbances.” Journal of Clinical Neurology, December 23, 2015. Accessed September 1, 2019.

Kiriakopoulos, Elaine; Shafer, Patricia O.  “Tonic-clonic Seizures.” Epilepsy Foundation, March 2017. Accessed September 1, 2019.

Rogawski, Michael A. “Update on the Neurobiology of Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures.” Epilepsy Currents, November 2005. Accessed September 1, 2019.

Hattemer, Katja; et al. “Recurrent Alcohol-induced Seizures in a Patient with Chronic Alcohol Abuse.” Epileptic Disorders, 2008. Accessed September 1, 2019.

Bråthen, G; et al. “Alcohol-related Seizures.” European Handbook of Neurological Management, 2011. Accessed September 1, 2019.

 

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village Columbus aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.