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

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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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CHOC recognized as one of nation’s best children’s hospitals

CHOC Children’s is one of only 50 pediatric facilities in the nation to earn recognition as a best children’s hospital by U.S. News & World Report. The following CHOC specialties are honored in the 2019-20 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings: diabetes/endocrinology, cancer, neonatology, neurology/neurosurgery, pulmonology and urology. Cancer ranked in the “top 20.”

“The national recognition for CHOC’s cancer program is well-deserved. There’s nowhere else I’d rather have gone through treatment than CHOC,” says 17-year-old Sydney Sigafus, CHOC patient and cancer survivor. “Everyone who works at CHOC cares about you as a person, not just a patient. I was included in every decision and conversation about my care.”

The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings were introduced by U.S. News in 2007 to help families of children with rare or life-threatening diseases find the best medical care available. Only the nation’s top 50 pediatric facilities are distinguished in 10 pediatric specialties, based on survival rates, nurse staffing, procedure and patient volumes, reputation and additional outcomes data. The availability of clinical resources, infection rates and compliance with best practices are also factored into the rankings.

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“We understand how scary it can be for parents whose children are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or injuries. That’s why we are committed to the highest standards of care, safety and service,” says Dr. James Cappon, CHOC’s chief quality officer. “While we are proud of our accolades, including being named a best children’s hospital, we remain focused on preserving the magic of childhood for all kids, whether they are seriously ill or healthy, or somewhere in between.”

Learn more about the Best Children’s Hospitals rankings.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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Six-year-old Beats the Odds Thanks to Life-Saving Brain Surgery at CHOC

At just 6 years old, Madison Morrison has earned the nickname “Miracle Maddy” after recovering from life-saving surgery at CHOC Children’s. The spunky girl, who loves listening to music and drawing, defied the odds of survival when the flu caused encephalitis (viral meningitis with life-threatening brain swelling). Within 48 hours of being taken to the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital, Maddy underwent emergency brain surgery and was placed in a medically induced coma. For the next two months, her parents remained by her bedside in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

Mike, Maddy’s dad, says February 4 marked the beginning of their journey. He and his wife Angel never imagined a trip to the emergency department for vomiting would end with their youngest child fighting for her life. On the evening of her admission, Maddy’s nurse immediately noticed when her patient became unresponsive and her pupils became fixed and dilated – grave findings suggestive of dangerous brain swelling. Maddy was intubated, placed in a coma and underwent surgery to have a device placed in her brain to measure and help reduce the pressure inside her skull. Given the fixed volume of the skull, there is little room to accommodate for brain swelling. As it does, the pressure in the skull increases. Seizures, strokes and even death can occur if the pressure rises significantly.

The pressure inside Maddy’s skull remained very high. Her physicians feared she would not survive. After all medical interventions failed to control the brain swelling and lower the pressure in her skull, and after a scan revealed Maddy was at imminent risk of death, CHOC neurosurgeon Dr. William Loudon presented Mike and Angel with one final measure:  a  decompressive craniectomy, a surgery in which part of the skull is removed to allow a swelling brain to expand beyond the normal confines of the closed skull.

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Miracle Maddy and her pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. William Loudon

“Dr. Loudon patiently explained everything, including the risks, and assured us he’d care for Maddy as though she was his own daughter,” recalls Mike. “We were naturally frightened, but we had confidence in him and trusted he would do everything in his control to save her.”

Mike adds, “He kept his word. We will forever be grateful to him.”

Maddy remained in a coma as she continued to heal. Her PICU care team became, in her parents’ words, “the protectors.”

“Without ever hearing her voice or experiencing her outgoing personality, the team stood by Maddy’s side to not only protect her and save her life, but to love her. The people in CHOC’s PICU are special. There’s no way to understand the emotion and bonds created in that unit unless you’ve been there and experienced the passion within the entire team and the love they have for their jobs, their patients and their parents,” shares Mike.

The PICU team rallied with Mike and Angel when Maddy came out of the coma. She still had a tough recovery ahead, but with the help of CHOC’s speech, physical and occupational therapists, she relearned to walk, talk and eat.

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Miracle Maddy recovering after brain surgery at CHOC.

The day Maddy was discharged from the PICU was bittersweet. Her parents were thrilled to be taking her home but sad to say goodbye to the staff who had become part of their family.

Angel explains, “Not only did the people in the PICU save Madison’s life, they were smiling faces to us day in and day out. They were a big part of our encouragement, while sharing in our hope and our worry. I was grateful to leave the PICU but sad to leave so many amazing people.”

Shortly after arriving home, Maddy was living up to her nickname. Walking laps around her home, dancing to her favorite songs and enjoying some Snapchat fun, she was putting her hospital stay behind her and focusing on the joys of childhood. And her CHOC family wouldn’t want it any other way for their “Miracle Maddy.”

Learn more about neurosurgery at CHOC

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