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How Stroke Can Lead to Epilepsy

Posted on December 06, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Nyaka Mwanza

Not every person who has a stroke will have a seizure. Only a fraction of people who have a stroke have a post-stroke seizure (PSS), some of whom go on to develop post-stroke epilepsy (PSE). PSE is diagnosed when a person has additional stroke-related seizures after their first seizure event.

About Post-Stroke Seizures and Epilepsy

Around 795,000 people in the United States per year will have a stroke. An estimated 4 percent to 10 percent of stroke survivors experience early onset PSS, defined as a seizure that occurs within the first 24 hours to two weeks after a stroke. Late-onset PSS is a stroke-related seizure that occurs more than two weeks after a stroke. The more time that passes after a person has a stroke, the lower their risk of having a first PSS event. However, the likelihood of developing epilepsy is greater if an initial PSS occurs later.

PSE is usually defined by having at least one early onset PSS event followed by at least one late-onset PSS event.

Causes of Post-Stroke Seizures

When a person is first diagnosed with epileptic seizures as an adult, the cause of their seizures is unknown 50 percent of the time. For those whose cause of epilepsy is known, however, stroke is among the leading causes. Stroke accounts for almost half of newly diagnosed, adult-onset epilepsy cases. It’s also one of the most common causes of seizures in people older than 60 years.

There are several risk factors for PSS.

Hemorrhagic Stroke

Stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks blood flow to the brain (ischemic stroke) or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures (hemorrhagic stroke), causing a brain bleed. While both types of strokes can lead to seizures, hemorrhagic strokes carry a greater risk of PSS. In one study, people who had had a hemorrhagic stroke were at almost two times greater risk of PSS. The risk of stroke after a seizure is greatest with hemorrhagic strokes that occur in the cerebral cortex (the outermost part of the brain, which is responsible for language, memory, motor function, and other functions).

Brain Injury

Seizures that occur after a stroke may be caused by damage to the brain and scar tissue from the stroke. This scar tissue disrupts proper transmission of electrical signals that control the body. Brain injury caused by very severe strokes, multiple strokes, or strokes that occur in younger people may be more likely to lead to PSS.

Seizure History

Adults who have a history of epilepsy are at significantly higher risk of having a stroke than people without a history of the seizure disorder. Twenty-three percent of adults aged 65 years or older with a history of epilepsy reported having a stroke, compared to only about 5 percent of older adults who didn’t have a history of epilepsy.

Types of Post-Stroke Seizure

The abnormal electrical activity caused by stroke-related scar tissue can trigger different types of seizures. The seizure type usually depends on where in the brain the electrical abnormalities or seizure begin, whether the abnormal electrical activity spreads to other parts of the brain, and the parts of the brain affected. PSS usually starts in the part of the brain where the stroke occured and spreads to involve the other parts of the brain and sometimes the entire brain.

Types of PSS can include partial seizures (focal seizures) with or without awareness. Focal seizures usually affect one side of the brain. Focal seizures can become generalized seizures (also called focal-to-bilateral or tonic-clonic seizures). Symptoms of tonic-clonic seizures include convulsions characterized by stiffening and jerking of the body and often a loss of consciousness. Generalized seizures, caused by electrical pulses on both sides of the brain, are the most common type of PSS.

Treating Post-Stroke Epilepsy

Many people may not recognize that falls, confusion, and loss of consciousness may be signs of PSS or PSE. Knowing the signs and symptoms of a seizure is an important way to get the right treatment as soon as possible.

In general, PSE can and should be managed by a neurologist much like other types of seizures and epilepsies. PSE can usually be controlled with antiepileptic drugs (AEDs). It’s important to take medication as prescribed to keep seizures under control. Let your doctor know about all medications you may be taking, as there are potentially dangerous drug interactions between medications used for stroke (such as blood thinners) and AEDs.

Another option is vagus nerve stimulation. Like a pacemaker for your brain, a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) is a battery-operated device surgically attached to the vagus nerve in the neck, which carries information to and from the brain. A VNS sends out mild electrical impulses to regulate and stimulate the nerves in the brain, which may reduce the risk of a person having a seizure.

Basic Seizure First Aid

It may be helpful to know the basics of seizure first aid if you recognize that someone is having a PSS. Most seizures do not require emergency health services and end naturally within a few minutes of the seizure’s onset. The golden rule for providing seizure first aid is to prevent harm or injury until the seizure is over and the person regains consciousness or awareness.

If a person is having a seizure, remember these tips:

  • Help the person to a horizontal position so they don’t fall.
  • Put a pillow under the person’s head.
  • Move sharp or hard objects out of the way during convulsions.
  • Keep an eye on the time to see how long the person’s seizure symptoms last.
  • Don’t try to restrain the person’s movements.
  • Don’t put anything in the person’s mouth.

If a person has a seizure that lasts longer than five minutes, or has three seizures in a row without regaining consciousness between them, seek immediate medical help. These symptoms could be a life-threatening condition called status epilepticus.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyEpilepsyTeam is the social network for people with epilepsy and their loved ones. More than 100,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with epilepsy.

Have you had a seizure or seizures after a stroke? Share your experience in the comments below or by posting on MyEpilepsyTeam.

References
  1. Strokes May Lead to Epilepsy — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  2. Post-Stroke Seizures and Epilepsy: Frequently Asked Questions — Epilepsy Foundation
  3. Seizures After Stroke: A Prospective Multicenter Study — Archives of Neurology
  4. The Progress of Epilepsy After Stroke — Current Neuropharmacology
  5. What Causes Epilepsy and Seizures? — Epilepsy Foundation
  6. Ischemic Stroke (Clots) — American Stroke Association
  7. Hemorrhagic Stroke (Bleeds) — American Stroke Association
  8. Cerebral Cortex — Physiopedia
  9. Developing Seizures After Stroke May Increase Risk of Death, Disability — American Heart Association
  10. Types of Seizures — Epilepsy Foundation
  11. Controlling Post Stroke Seizures — American Stroke Association
  12. Types of Seizures — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  13. Tonic-Clonic Seizures — Epilepsy Foundation
  14. Treating Seizures and Epilepsy — Epilepsy Foundation
  15. Risk Factors Under Your Control — American Stroke Association
  16. Having a Stroke at a Younger Age Increases the Risk of Developing Epilepsy — Epilepsy Foundation
  17. Seizure Medication List — Epilepsy Foundation
  18. Epilepsy Foundation and the American Stroke Association Collaborate To Raise Awareness About Seizure Risk Among Stroke Survivors — Epilepsy Foundation
  19. Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) — Epilepsy Foundation
  20. First Aid for Seizures — Stay, Safe, Side. — Epilepsy Foundation
  21. Recognizing Seizures and First Aid — Epilepsy Foundation
  22. Status Epilepticus — Epilepsy Foundation
  23. Stroke Risk Factors Not Within Your Control — American Stroke Association
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Nyaka Mwanza has worked with large global health nonprofits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Learn more about her here.

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