Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy: What parents should know

By Dr. Lily Tran, pediatric neurologist and epileptologist and medical director of CHOC’s comprehensive epilepsy center

dr-lily-tran-choc-childrens

Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) occurs when someone with epilepsy suddenly dies unexpectedly and the cause is not related to an accident or seizure emergency. A seizure emergency could include status epilepticus, where someone has a seizure lasting more than five minutes, or two or more seizures within a short period of time without the person returning to normal in between. Aside from epilepsy, this person is otherwise considered healthy, and no other cause of death can be found. Each year, one in 1,000 people in the U.S. die from SUDEP.

There are several risk factors for SUDEP. These include:

  • Poorly controlled seizures, especially tonic-clonic seizures, characterized by a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions
  • Seizures, especially tonic-clonic seizures, that tend to occur in sleep or at night
  • Not taking medications regularly or as prescribed
  • Stopping or changing medications suddenly
  • Young adult age

The exact cause of SUDEP is unknown. More research is needed to understand its cause. Some research suggests that seizures lead to changes in the brain and/or heart’s ability to function, and related breathing difficulties may lead to SUDEP.

For anyone with epilepsy, the ultimate goal is always to minimize seizures as much as possible and strive to become seizure-free. There are several other things people with epilepsy can do to help prevent SUDEP, including:

  • Take your anti-epileptic medications as prescribed. Do not stop medications abruptly without talking to your doctor.
  • Stay healthy by eating a well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Avoid potential seizure triggers.
  • Make sure your family members and/or caretakers understand seizure first-aid

Although seizure-alert devices are on the market, there is no scientific data to support the idea that these devices help prevent SUDEP. More evidence is needed to show they can accurately detect seizures and prevent SUDEP.

VIDEO: A CHOC neurologist explains epilepsy vs. seizures

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Epilepsy myths: what parents should know

At CHOC Children’s, we understand the challenges families face when a child experiences a seizure. Our Comprehensive Epilepsy Program is a national leader in pediatric epilepsy care, offering cutting-edge diagnostics, innovative medical approaches and advanced surgical interventions from the nation’s foremost epilepsy experts.

We also recognize the alarming number of epilepsy myths that can cause confusion for children, families and friends alike. We spoke to Dr. Mary Zupanc, a pediatric neurologist who specializes in the treatment of an epilepsy, and who serves as co-medical director of CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute, to combat the most common epilepsy myths.

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Dr. Mary Zupanc, a pediatric neurologist who specializes in the treatment of an epilepsy, and co-medical director of CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute

Myth 1: Epilepsy is rare.

The truth: About 1% of the population has epilepsy — or more than three million people in the U.S. — but as many as one in five people will have a single seizure in their lifetime. Two or more unprovoked seizures is considered epilepsy. Provoked seizures are caused by a specific medical condition such as trauma, infection, abnormality in brain development, stroke or tumor.

Myth 2: Epilepsy is curable.

The truth: One of the most common questions I hear from parents is, “Is epilepsy curable?” and the answer is, it depends.

There are some epilepsy syndromes that go into remission in childhood, such as simple febrile seizures or childhood absence seizures. In some cases, seizures are the result of a genetic mutation that essentially “turns off” at the time of puberty.

Most of the remaining epilepsy syndromes can be controlled with appropriately-chosen antiepileptic medications, but this does not mean that the epilepsy is “cured.” In these cases, the child would still need medication to maintain seizure control.

Seizures that develop in adolescence will generally continue into adulthood and will not go into remission.

Approximately 60-70% of patients with epilepsy can have complete seizure control with the appropriate antiepileptic medication. The remaining 30-40% will continue to have intermittent seizures and should be in the care of a Level 3 or Level 4 epilepsy center, where specialists can further evaluate them for epilepsy surgery. CHOC is a Level 4 epilepsy center, meaning we offer all forms of epilepsy surgery using the very latest, safe procedures. Learn more about what makes epilepsy centers unique.

Myth 3: Epilepsy surgery is considered a last resort.

The truth: Epilepsy surgery is not a last resort. In fact, the results of epilepsy surgery are often excellent, and in many cases epilepsy surgery can eliminate seizures without causing further neurological injury. The process is complex to determine whether a child is a good candidate for epilepsy surgery, and parents are an important part of that discussion. Learn more about epilepsy surgery at CHOC.

Myth 4: If my child has epilepsy surgery, they will end up with a neurologic defect.

The truth: When epilepsy surgery is done in childhood, the brain still has a high level of plasticity, meaning it can essentially rewrite itself and adapt to change, sending certain functions elsewhere in the brain. The older a child gets, the level of plasticity in the brain decreases.

There are, of course, risks for any type of surgery. Questions related to risk and potential side effects should be an important part of an ongoing conversation with your child’s care team.

Myth 5: You shake or convulse when you have a seizure.

The truth: Another common question I get from parents is, “What does a seizure feel like?” The truth is, seizures are often not what they look like on TV. Seizures do not always cause “convulsions” or shaking.  They can be characterized by staring and not responding.  They can also begin with a funny smell or feeling of doom or dread followed by nausea and staring. Other seizures can begin with a mood change, sudden agitation, unexpected quietness, subtle change of awareness, or repetitive activities including hand movements or lip smacking or puckering.

Myth 6: I will remember my seizure.

The truth: Most people don’t remember their seizures. A small percentage of people will not experience alteration of consciousness and they might remember some of their seizure. However, most people who experience seizures will not remember their seizure and the several minutes that follow the seizure.

Myth 7: My seizure will hurt.

The truth: Parents often wonder if their child’s seizure causes them physical pain. When a child wakes up from the seizure, they may have a headache. If they have bitten their tongue during the seizure, their mouth may hurt. Sometimes children lose control of their bladder or bowel during a seizure, causing embarrassment after a seizure.

Myth 8: If you see someone having a seizure, hold them down and put something in their mouth so they don’t bite their tongue.

The truth: The jaw is full of very strong muscles. Never put anything in the mouth of someone who is having a seizure. They could bite down and break the object, causing pieces of it to go back into their airway.

Do not restrain someone having a seizure. You can, however, move objects away from them so that they don’t hurt themselves. Try to get them on their side if possible because people with epilepsy often have difficulty managing their secretions following a seizure. If they feel nauseated after a seizure, they could vomit, which can result in aspiration into their lungs.

Myth 9: Call 911 after every seizure.

The truth: If the seizure is unusual or prolonged, call 911. If your child has been diagnosed with epilepsy and you are under the care of a pediatric neurologist, follow the seizure action plan that your physician has given you.

Myth 10: Epilepsy is contagious.

The truth: Epilepsy is not an infectious disease, so it is not contagious.

Myth 11: Seizures are fatal.

The truth: It’s terrifying to watch an adult or child have a seizure. They will turn blue or experience hypoventilation (breathing at an extremely slow rate), but if you turn them on their side to avoid aspirating, they will be fine. If a seizure lasts longer than five minutes, it is unlikely to stop on its own. This is typically when 911 is called or the parents or care provider should administer rectal diazepam, a prescription medication designed to stop seizures.

Learn more about sudden unexpected death in epilepsy.

Myth 12: Tics and epilepsy are the same thing.

The truth: Tics are random, stereotyped movements. They are never associated with an altered level of consciousness. They do not occur during sleep or as someone is waking up, which are symptoms associated with epileptic seizures. Here’s what parents should know about children and tics.

Myth 13: Having a seizure means someone is possessed by evil spirits.

The truth: Seizures can be caused by a number of genetic or environmental factors. For most people with epilepsy, an underlying cause is identified. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of the physician and modern medicine, an underlying cause can’t be found. It’s important to remember that epilepsy is a very common condition, affecting more than three million people in the U.S.

Myth 14: All people with epilepsy have cognitive disabilities

The truth: Most people living with epilepsy are cognitively normal. Sometimes people who observe a complex partial seizure― which involves an altered state of consciousness and may include rhythmic jerking, drooling, vomiting or involuntary movements ―may be misconstrued as a psychiatric illness. Epilepsy is not a psychiatric illness. It is a biological condition that causes increased stimulation in the brain.

VIDEO: Dr. Zupanc explains epilepsy vs. seizures

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Restoring a Happy Childhood: Rylee’s Epilepsy Journey

A teacher years ago bestowed an apt nickname on Rylee Christe: Smiley Rylee.

“She’s a very social, happy child,” says her mom, Sara. “She got that name from her preschool teacher. It just stuck forever. She’s always smiling.”

But despite her happy disposition, Rylee had a big roadblock: frequent disruptive seizures. And Sara wanted nothing more for her young daughter than to enjoy her childhood without this burden.

The problem

In 2013, a pediatrician diagnosed a 4-year-old Rylee with complex partial seizures. Suddenly, Rylee’s mouth would twitch and cause saliva to bubble. She’d be unresponsive to questions. While the family awaited an appointment with a specialist, the seizures quickly increased in frequency, sometimes up to 30 a day.

One day, Sara knew she couldn’t wait any longer and took Rylee to an emergency department. An electroencephalogram, or EEG, detected abnormal brain activity, confirming the pediatrician’s diagnosis of complex partial seizures. Imaging also revealed a lesion on Rylee’s brain.

An odyssey to stop the seizures began. Doctors ordered multiple tests and prescribed several types of medications. But the seizures continued. They moved to another hospital and found some temporary relief, but the seizures began again.

Finding a guide

The Christe family’s next stop was CHOC Children’s, where they saw Dr. Mary Zupanc, medical director of neurology at the CHOC Children’s Neuroscience Institute and director of CHOC’s Pediatric Comprehensive Epilepsy Program.

dr-mary-zupanc
Dr. Mary Zupanc, medical director of neurology at the CHOC Children’s Neuroscience Institute and director of CHOC’s Pediatric Comprehensive Epilepsy Program

Dr. Zupanc, who has worked with thousands of patients with epilepsy throughout her career, understood exactly how distressing an epilepsy diagnosis can be for families and how debilitating seizures can be.

“We had been through the woodwork trying to get to where we are now, to find the amazing doctor that we needed,” Sara says.

A plan at last

First, Dr. Zupanc ordered long-term video EEG monitoring of Rylee’s brain activity. Another round of imaging revealed another lesion, this time in the left frontal lobe.

Dr. Zupanc then worked to get Rylee’s seizures under control, trying two medications previous care teams hadn’t. After the seizures reduced to about one or two a night, the Christe family headed home.

Next, Dr. Zupanc set out to stop the seizures for good. It was clear though that Rylee would need more than medication. Dr. Zupanc raised the prospect of brain surgery.

“At first, I was hesitant to move forward because any mention of surgery for your child is terrifying,” Sara says. “But brain surgery? Come on.”

But Dr. Zupanc explained to the family that evidence shows more than 70 percent of patients with seizures may benefit from surgical intervention; that children respond and recover well from surgery because of the plasticity of their young brains; and that surgery should be considered sooner than later.

Taking action

The family agreed to explore the option, moving forward with subsequent testing, exams and lab work needed to determine if Rylee was indeed a surgical candidate. After reviewing the results, a team of CHOC specialists agreed that she would benefit from surgery.

rylee-epilepsy-surgery

Next for the Christes was a brain mapping session at CHOC Children’s Hospital. During the procedure, Dr. Joffre Olaya, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is specially trained in epilepsy surgery, opened Rylee’s skull and placed an electrical grid on her brain. Later, Dr. Zupanc would record Rylee’s seizures to pinpoint the seizure focus. She also stimulated the electrodes on the grid to determine the location of Rylee’s motor area and speech and language center in the brain.

Three hours of testing confirmed Dr. Zupanc’s suspicion that Rylee’s seizures were originating from the left frontal lobe. The physicians were confident if Dr. Olaya removed the lesion there, the seizures would stop.

The procedure wasn’t without risks though. Drs. Zupanc and Olaya cautioned Sara that the surgery could leave her daughter with some impairments like a facial droop, speech problems and even some paralysis.

Sara and Rylee weighed the risks with the benefits of a childhood without seizures and decided to move forward. Three days later, she underwent a successful surgery with no complications.

Back to being a kid

After four days of recovery at the hospital, Rylee and Sara headed home. The next week, Rylee returned to school on an adjusted schedule and was begging her mother to use her roller blades and ride her bicycle.

Now, about six months past her surgery, Rylee, 9, hasn’t had a single seizure. She remains on medication, but it’s likely her dosing may decrease after a few years.

Life for the Christes has changed dramatically.

“Quality of life has improved so much for the whole family,” Sara says. “I can sleep at night. It feels like I haven’t slept in five years.”

rylee-after-epilepsy-surgery

And Rylee, who will likely remain on medication for the rest of her life with close following by her physicians, is in fourth grade and back to enjoying her childhood.

“She loves to dance and sing, and she can remember the words to every song she sings,” Sara says. “She loves to swim and ride bikes, and her favorite thing in the world is mermaids.”

Learn more about the CHOC Epilepsy Program

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    At CHOC Children’s, we understand the challenges families face when a child experiences a seizure. Our Comprehensive Epilepsy Program is a national leader in pediatric epilepsy care, offering cutting-edge diagnostics, ...
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Overcoming Epilepsy: Gabriel’s Story

Thick blankets covered the tables in Joe and Nicole Lucak’s New Mexico home to protect their young son who was living with epilepsy. The couple placed a soft cloth over every surface to protect their son Gabriel when he’d suffer a seizure and fall.

On bad days, Gabriel would experience up to 50 seizures. On a good day, it might be just 10. On any day though, this reality was devastating for his parents.

“It was like living out a surreal nightmare,” Nicole says.

Gabriel had been a healthy, normally developing child until age 3, when he experienced his first tonic-clonic seizure, the type of seizure typically depicted in movies when a person first loses consciousness, then falls to the ground and begins jerking and shaking.

Searching for answers

Gabriel was initially diagnosed at his local hospital with myoclonic-astatic epilepsy, also known as Doose syndrome. His seizures were difficult to control, and doctors attempted many different treatments, including eight months on a special ketogenic diet. During this time, Gabriel was hospitalized numerous times to modify his medication and control his seizures.

A low point for the Lucak family came about nine months after the seizures began. While hospitalized for respiratory syncytial virus, Gabriel’s seizures increased significantly. An electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded seizures occurring about once a minute and a slowing brain wave frequency. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed decreased brain volume. Gabriel’s health was rapidly deteriorating.

Joe and Nicole desperately began looking elsewhere for help, and found a beacon of hope nearly 1,400 miles away in Dr. Mary Zupanc, a CHOC Children’s pediatric neurologist and one of the nation’s leading epileptologists, who was practicing in Wisconsin at the time.

Under Dr. Zupanc’s care, Gabriel began a new treatment program. He stopped following the ketogenic diet and began taking a new antiepileptic medication. He underwent a two-week long-term video EEG monitoring study, which revealed he was experiencing a fifth type of seizure during sleep.

adolescent-living-with-epilepsy

A new diagnosis

Dr. Zupanc then knew that Gabriel’s epilepsy had evolved into a more severe form called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS). This rare type of epilepsy is marked by seizures that are difficult to control, and typically persist through adulthood.

She also diagnosed Gabriel with cerebral folate deficiency, a rare metabolic condition, following a spinal tap and extensive testing on his cerebral spinal fluid. He immediately began taking a folinic acid supplement and following a strict dairy-free diet.

Under this new treatment plan, Gabriel was seizure-free within two months. A second spinal tap showed a normal level of folate, and another MRI had normal results. The Lucaks were thrilled.

“Gabriel could have suffered severe brain damage, or he might not have survived at all,” Nicole says. “That’s how critical it was for us to have found Dr. Zupanc when we did.”

A bright future

Today, Gabriel is an intelligent, creative and artistic 13-year-old who dreams of being a paramedic when he grows up.

After regularly traveling from San Diego, where the family now lives, to the CHOC Children’s Neuroscience Institute and its level 4 epilepsy center for appointments and follow-ups, Gabriel has had several normal EEG studies and has successfully weaned off his anti-epileptic medication with no seizures.

Because of this, Dr. Zupanc believes Gabriel’s epilepsy is in remission. Now, he no longer needs to always carry emergency medication – a development that is life-changing for Gabriel and his family.

“All restrictions and seizure precautions have been lifted,” Nicole says. “So, Gabe looks forward to driver’s education in the near future. He will no longer need to have long-term video EEG monitoring performed each year. No more medical ID necklace. No more Diastat in my purse. No more Diastat kit in the school’s health room.”

Gabriel is also under the care of Dr. Jose Abdenur, chief of CHOC’s metabolics disorders division. Gabriel, his younger brother and his parents have all participated in several research studies involving genetic testing for both epilepsy and cerebral folate deficiency. Results of the epilepsy study found no predisposition to epilepsy.

Learn more about the CHOC Epilepsy Program

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What Causes Seizures?

Seizures are mysterious. They cause the body to act strangely. They’re hard to predict and they can’t be seen, except with special tests of the brain. So, what causes seizures?

As a neurologist with special training in epilepsy, CHOC Children’s epileptologist Dr. Maija-Riikka Steenari has dedicated her career to understanding seizures and epilepsy, which affects 470,000 children nationwide. In recognition of National Epilepsy Awareness Month, she provides a look into the mystery of seizures.

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Dr. Maija Steenari answers frequently asked questions related to what causes seizures.

What happens in the brain during a seizure?

“Brain cells, called neurons, communicate by electrical activity. If there is a dysfunction, the brain can get overexcited. The electrical activity in the brain surges, causing the neurons to get out of control. The surge of electricity can start in one spot and spread, called a focal onset seizure, or it can happen throughout the brain, called a generalized seizure.”

What does a seizure look like?

“A seizure can manifest in many different ways. When a family comes to us, we ask them what they saw when their child had a seizure. What happened first? Was one arm stiff, were both arms jerking, did the child fall down, did their head turn to one side, were they unresponsive? It’s very helpful if the family has video of a seizure happening. A seizure can make you see, feel and taste weird things. We will ask the child, do you remember having a seizure or not? All these details help us determine if the seizure started from one focus and from which area of the brain, or if it was generalized onset.”

What causes seizures?

“Focal onset seizures can be caused by multiple different things, for example a malformation in the brain or an injury to the brain. Other causes could be a genetic or metabolic disorder which affects how the brain works, or causes a buildup of toxic materials, or is preventing the brain from getting what it needs. Many seizures or epilepsies are considered idiopathic, which means they have no known cause. We are learning more about them and why they happen, and as we do more testing, we find explanations to previous mysteries, often caused by genetic mutations.”

What can tests tell you about seizures?

“We always start with an EEG. That looks at the electrical activity in the brain. We can often see epileptiform discharges on the EEG, which tells us a patient has a tendency of having seizures. I often describe these discharges as sparks of electrical activity. I like to use the lawn analogy when I am talking to families. Think of a brain that has a tendency of having seizures as dry grass. Epileptiform discharges, or sparks, can easily cause a fire (I.e. seizure) on the dry grass. We may also use an MRI to look at the structure of the brain, to look for any abnormalities like a cortical malformation, tumor, or scar tissue from an infection or brain injury such as a stroke.”

How do you treat seizures?

“If the seizure was unprovoked, and after the initial evaluation we have a high suspicion that seizure will reoccur, we recommend starting a medication to treat the seizures. Referring back to the lawn analogy, medication can be considered as watering the lawn, to make the environment more difficult for the sparks to cause more fires. About 60-70 percent of the time, the first medication works when picked correctly. If the seizures continue despite appropriate dosing, we often try a second one. With adding a second medication, the chance of being seizure free is much less likely and If they fail two medications, we need to consider other treatment options, for example epilepsy surgery, diet treatments or vagal nerve stimulator.”

When considering epilepsy surgery, how do you know what part of the brain to operate on?

“Prior to surgery, we gather a lot of information about the seizures, the cause of the child’s epilepsy and the brain structure. We capture typical seizures during an inpatient video EEG study, and we will often lower medication to encourage a seizure to happen. We use detailed imaging techniques to look at the brain structure and how the brain uses energy, to see if we can pinpoint a focal seizure onset zone. We will also do neuropsychological testing, to understand if a child has difficulties in certain brain functions. We will discuss the results with our multidisciplinary epilepsy team, and evaluate if the child could benefit from epilepsy surgery.”

Is everyone’s brain mapped the same?

“No. Most brains are generally mapped the same but it’s not always the case, and sometimes the cause of the seizure has also caused the brain to map differently. A child’s brain is very plastic, and it has adapted around the injury or abnormality. Seizures cause disruption of typical brain development and the more seizures you have and the longer you have them, at some point your brain has learned to have seizures and they are much harder to control. Disruption of normal brain networks can also cause learning difficulties and developmental delays. That’s why it’s important to treat epilepsy as early as possible in children.”

Learn more about the CHOC Epilepsy Program

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