Seizures While You Sleep?

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Summary & Participants

Not all epileptic seizures are noticeable. For some, they can occur while a person is asleep, making epilepsy hard to recognize and also more severe. Learn how to break out of this vicious cycle.

Medically Reviewed On: July 21, 2012

Webcast Transcript

ANNOUNCER: Epilepsy, or the condition of experiencing chronic, unprovoked seizures, affects approximately 2.7 million Americans of all ages. Epilepsy encompasses a wide variety of seizures that can be caused by many factors. One area of concern is seizure activity during sleep.

CARL BAZIL, MD, PhD: Sleep-related epilepsy would be those seizures that have a relationship with sleep. Some of them will occur predominantly during sleep, and sometimes they will occur exclusively during sleep. There are also conditions where the seizures almost or exclusively occur during the transition between sleep and wakefulness.

ANNOUNCER: The relationship between sleep and seizure activity is not well understood by physicians. But research has helped physicians begin to put pieces of the puzzle together.

CARL BAZIL, MD, PhD: Seizures occur because of groups of brain cells that are firing synchronously. Brain cells are supposed to be doing their own business most of the time, but if they pick up an abnormal signal, they might start all firing together, and that's what forms a seizure.

The same sort of condition happens during normal sleep. There are patterns during sleep where neurons tend to fire together in rhythmic patterns, and it may be that that underlying pattern makes it easier to have a seizure, but we don't really know.

ANNOUNCER: Sleep-related epilepsy occurs in a minority of epilepsy patients, anywhere from 10 to 25 percent, although because the patient is asleep, seizure activity is difficult to recognize. The patient may feel tired and fatigued during the day and not know why. Or the physician may recognize a pattern of sleep deprivation symptoms occurring over weeks or months. But there are a few techniques physicians and patients can use to diagnose sleep-related epilepsy.

STEVEN KARCESKI, MD: The initial step in diagnosing seizures that are associated with sleep is in the doctor's office. The person experiencing the seizures will explain a pattern of seizures that may occur, but medical testing can help to confirm this. Video EEG monitoring, which combines video and brainwave testing, capturing the person's seizures during sleep, is very helpful not only in establishing the diagnosis, but also in really focusing on the kind of seizure that the person is experiencing during sleep.

ANNOUNCER: If a patient suspects they are having seizures during sleep, it is important to address their concern with their physician for a number of reasons.

STEVEN KARCESKI, MD: There are very specific kinds of epilepsy where the seizures are more likely to occur while the person is sleeping. If this is a pattern of seizures that a person's been experiencing over a period of time, it's important to identify this and bring this to the physician's attention. The reason is that this information can be very important in helping to make the very specific diagnosis of the kind of epilepsy that that person has.

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