Alcohol withdrawal and the complications that can come from it can be incredibly dangerous. Seizures can be just one of those complications. Approximately five percent of people who suffer from alcohol withdrawal experience seizures.
When a loved one abuses alcohol, the focus tends to surround the negative outcomes of drinking too much alcohol. However, there are significant side effects that can occur when a person who is addicted to alcohol stops drinking.
The potential for serious side effects due to alcohol withdrawal is the reason that individuals who want to stop drinking are encouraged to attend a medically supervised detox. These programs can monitor and provide treatment to avoid and alleviate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
For a person who struggles with a severe alcohol use disorder, side effects like delirium tremens, convulsions, delusions, and alcoholic seizures are a real possibility.
What Is A Seizure?
A seizure is electrical activity between neurons that becomes uncontrolled and unstable. Not all seizures are alike.
These bursts of electrical activity cause abnormalities to the body, for example:
- bizarre sensations
- jerking movements
- state of awareness
- behavior changes
- staring without movement
- cognitive or emotional symptoms like anxiety, fear, deja vu
Most of the time, seizures can last between 30 seconds to two minutes. If a seizure lasts close to five minutes or more, it becomes a medical emergency.
People who habitually abuse alcohol can experience alcohol-related seizures approximately six to 48 hours after their last drink. These seizures may be single or in small clusters and are generally classified as grand mal or tonic-clonic nonfocal.
Experiencing an alcohol-related seizure indicates that a person is suffering from extreme withdrawal symptoms.
According to a research study, 46 percent of those who had an alcohol-related seizure did not have another condition that could lead to a seizure. Alcohol withdrawal appeared to be the only cause of seizures in nearly half the subjects.
Some additional common risk factors that place a person at risk for a seizure are:
- alcohol withdrawal
- brain tumors
- traumatic brain injuries
- infections like viral encephalitis and HIV
- brain inflammation
- development of brain abnormalities
- heart attack or stroke
- disturbance of neuronal activity
Focal and generalized are two of the main types of seizures. These two types include multiple subtypes.
Focal Seizures (or Focal Epilepsy)
A focal seizure, sometimes referred to as a partial seizure, occurs in just one area of the brain. Common causes are localized scar tissue (sometimes caused by meningitis or a stroke), low blood sugar, brain tumors, epilepsy, and alcohol withdrawal.
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Subtypes of focal seizures include:
- Focal Aware — Individual remains aware during a seizure. Previously referred to as “simple partial seizures”. Lasting up to one minute, these seizures often make the person feel anxious or fearful afterward.
- Focal Impaired Awareness — Also called a “complex partial seizure”. A person may feel uneasy or nauseous before the seizure, and be confused or does not remember what happened during the seizure. Lasting one to two minutes, residual confusion or sleepiness can occur.
- Focal Motor — This type of seizure typically includes movements (spasms, rubbing hands together, twitching, moving). The words used to describe these types of seizures are: clonic, epileptic spasms, atonic, myoclonic, or tonic.
- Focal Non-Motor — Results in changing how a person thinks or even feels. Strong emotions, weird feelings, rapid heartbeat, hot or cold flashes, and goosebumps are all possible effects of this type of seizure.
Focal seizures can potentially turn into generalized seizures.
A generalized seizure takes place in both hemispheres of the brain at the same time and may be caused by:
- head injury
- neurological disorders
- alcohol withdrawal
- low levels of magnesium, thiamine, calcium, sodium, or glucose
There are six subtypes of generalized seizures:
- Absence seizures — previously called “petit mal” seizures, lasting about 15 seconds, the person simply stares off in space and does not move. Commonly mistaken for daydreaming, however, the person often does not recall what happened.
- Atonic seizures — also called “drop attacks”, the person’s body goes limp and they slump over or drop to the ground. Associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.
- Myoclonic seizures — The body jerks or jolts, as though it has been shocked with electricity. Similar to sleep myoclonic, except myoclonic seizures can actually be harmful. Includes infantile seizures which are severe and need treatment.
- Tonic seizures — Muscles stiffen and there is a loss of consciousness. As the back arches and the eyes roll backward, it can become difficult for the person to breathe. The lips or skin may turn blue from lack of oxygen.
- Clonic seizures — Neck, elbow, and leg muscles spasm and jerk. As the seizure dwindles, the flexing and relaxing of these muscles slow down until the seizure stops.
- Tonic-Clonic seizure — A combination of tonic and clonic seizures, tonic-clonic (or grand mal) seizures are intense. Someone experiencing a grand mal seizure will suddenly lose consciousness as their body shakes, stiffens, convulses, and collapses to the ground. Loss of bladder control can also occur.
Tonic-Clonic seizures are the most common type of seizures associated with alcohol withdrawal.
Watching someone have a seizure can be scary, however, it is important that everyone remain safe. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary to place an object in someone’s mouth while they are having a seizure. This can be dangerous and is discouraged.
After a seizure, the brain is working very hard to get itself back under control. The brain is highly active and this phase is called the post-ictal phase.
Once the person becomes conscious, they are likely to be extremely confused, tired, and sore. Be supportive and encourage seeking medical assistance.
Epilepsy And Alcohol Addiction
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines epilepsy as a neurological disorder in which recurring seizures occur. Seizures due to alcohol consumption are actually caused by alcohol withdrawal, not the alcohol itself.
A person that has experienced an alcoholic seizure is at a higher risk for developing epilepsy and other seizure disorders.
Research has shown that after having alcoholic seizures due to alcohol withdrawal and binge drinking, the brain becomes more reactive. This increase in reactivity increases the potential for repeated, or epileptic, seizures even without the presence of alcohol use.
If a person has already been diagnosed with epilepsy, the risk of seizures is much higher with alcohol consumption. Binge drinking, heavy drinking, and other forms of alcohol abuse should be avoided.
How Alcohol Can Trigger A Seizure
High risk of seizures has been linked to long-term alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, heavy drinking, and binge drinking.
Previous seizure activity while in alcohol withdrawal indicates that, if the person relapses, they will then experience more severe withdrawal symptoms when they quit drinking again.
While in withdrawal, if a person experiences multiple seizures, status epilepticus may occur. Seizures during status epilepticus will last more than five minutes, or be so close together that there is no recovery period between seizures, and can cause brain damage.
Alcoholic seizures are also an indication that a person in alcohol withdrawal may progress to delirium tremens.
This is a major concern, as approximately 37 percent of individuals with untreated delirium tremens die. Compared to those who are monitored in the hospital, only one to four percent actually die from symptoms of delirium tremens.
After a person suddenly stops drinking after long periods of time, the brain struggles to function due to the chemical imbalance and absence of alcohol.
Severe alcohol withdrawal cases can result in developing delirium tremens, one of the most dangerous and life-threatening symptoms of withdrawal.
The symptoms of DTs are:
- severe confusion
- excessive sweating
- loss of consciousness
- sleep disturbances
- extreme hyperactivity
- global confusion
- rapid heart rate
When a person is detoxing from alcohol, seeking help from medical professionals or a detox facility can save their life. Alcohol withdrawal can be complex and dangerous.
Mental Health And Alcoholic Seizures
According to a study published in 2019, alcoholic seizures caused significant negative effects in those who experience them, both emotionally and physically. This is not surprising, since these seizures affect brain function, and intensifying withdrawal symptoms.
This same study found that more than 81 percent of those who have alcoholic seizures were experiencing depression.
Individuals who are struggling with comorbid, or co-occurring, mental health and addiction issues benefit greatly from an inpatient or residential substance abuse treatment program.
Alcohol Withdrawal And Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal is one of the most indicative signs that a person is alcohol dependent. When a person with an alcohol addiction stops drinking, the brain essentially goes haywire because it has become dependent on the presence of alcohol.
During this alcohol withdrawal period, people can suffer from several of the following symptoms:
- nausea and vomiting
- hand tremors
- fever and excessive sweating
- high blood pressure
- delirium tremens
The severity and length of the alcohol withdrawal period significantly depends on how much, how often, and how long the person has been drinking alcohol.
Alcohol Abuse And Treatment
Locating an alcohol addiction rehabilitation center that offers supervised medical detoxification can help a person safely detox from alcohol is very important.
Having access to medications to ease withdrawal symptoms, like benzodiazepines or anti-epileptic drugs, can be helpful.
Our professional staff is prepared to explain the treatment process and what it can look like for you or your loved one. The first priority is getting you or your loved one the help they need. Contact our treatment specialists helpline today to start the journey to recovery.
Published on October 15, 2020
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- Johns Hopkins Medicine—Generalized Seizures
- Central Nervous System Drugs—Seizures in alcohol-dependent patients: epidemiology, pathophysiology and management
- Epilepsy & Behavior—Alcohol-related seizures may be associated with more severe depression, alcohol dependence syndrome, and more pronounced alcohol-related problems
- Frontiers Neurology—Alcohol use and Alcohol-Related Seizures in Patients With Epilepsy
- Proceedings of Latvian Academy of Sciences—Alcohol Use Disorder and Depression in Patients with Alcohol-Related Seizures