Studies show that as many as 44 percent of people with epilepsy in the U.S. try incorporating non-traditional therapies into their treatment plan. These treatments may be in addition to (complementary) or instead of (alternative) traditional drug therapies and surgeries. These types of treatments are collectively known as complementary and alternative treatments (CAT).
Some CAT therapies are aimed at controlling conditions that may trigger seizures in some people, such as stress, sleep deprivation, or low blood sugar. Others are based on theories that epilepsy is caused or exacerbated by nutritional deficiencies or energy imbalances. Some CAT treatments may increase your feelings of health and well-being in general, even if they do not reduce your risk of seizures.
CAT therapies for epilepsy include specialized diets, nutritional and herbal supplements, massage, mind-body practices, medical marijuana, energy therapies, hormones, and acupuncture. Unlike anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs), many CAT therapies have not been rigorously tested for safety or effectiveness in clinical trials. Some CAT approaches may fail to reduce seizures, and some may increase your risk for seizures. A CAT therapy may be safe and effective for some people with epilepsy, but prove ineffective or dangerous for others. Many people show a significant improvement when they first begin any new treatment due to the placebo effect.
If you choose to try one or more CAT therapies, it is important to maintain the traditional drug regimen established by your doctor. These treatments have been proven effective in rigorous, scientific trials. It is also vital to check with your neurologist before beginning a CAT so that they can warn you about any potential interactions and correctly interpret any side effects.
If you ever decide to stop taking an AED, consult your doctor for a plan to taper your dosage off gradually. Never suddenly stop taking an AED; this can cause withdrawal symptoms including an increase in seizures.
What does it involve?
Below are the basic facts of some of the CAT therapies that have been evaluated for the treatment of epilepsy in clinical trials.
There is a wide range of mind-body practices. Meditation can be seated or moving, guided or solitary. Biofeedback involves wearing special sensors on your head that monitor your brainwaves. You view a visualization of your brainwaves and attempt to change the pattern in ways that control or lessen symptoms. Prayer may take many forms depending on the spiritual tradition you follow.
Medical marijuana is currently legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Eleven other states allow restricted use of certain types of medical marijuana products. In places where marijuana products are sold legally, it is often available in a wide variety of formats. Cannabinoids (active substances in marijuana) may be purchased as lozenges, sprays, edible products and topical ointments as well as products that may be smoked or vaporized and inhaled. Ask your doctor for dosage and administration directions.
Herbal supplements including burning bush, valerian, and mugwort have been used to treat epilepsy. However, some herbs, including garlic, gingko, St. John’s Wort, and kava may interact with medications and cause problems.
Melatonin[LINK] is a hormone available over the counter in pill, spray or dissolvable tablet form, taken each night. Consult your doctor for dosage and timing.
If you have a restricted or idiosyncratic diet, a multivitamin containing the recommended daily amounts of essential vitamins and minerals may be taken once a day. Some AEDs can cause deficiencies of certain vitamins. People taking those medications may require supplemental calcium, B6, Vitamin D, and folic acid in order to maintain healthy bones and feel their best. Check with your doctor to find out whether you should supplement these nutrients, and what dosage is appropriate.
Massage therapy can be performed by certified massage therapists, or parents or spouses can receive massage training. Aromatherapy products are easily purchased in many shops or online.
Acupuncture is the insertion of thin needles shallowly into the skin at specific pressure points on the body. It has been used in China for thousands of years to promote health and treat disease. Acupuncture may be performed in 30- or 60-minute sessions one or more times per week.
Some people believe that spinal manipulations performed by chiropractors can help reduce seizures.
All CAT therapies are intended to reduce the risk and frequency of seizures, and to help you feel your best.
Although there have been many studies of mind-body techniques, there is no conclusive evidence that they can reduce seizures in people with epilepsy. However, these techniques may be effective in helping reduce stress in some people.
Medical marijuana has not been widely studied as a treatment for seizures. In the few studies that have been completed, results have been very mixed, with marijuana reducing seizures in some people and increasing the risk for seizures in others. More large-scale, scientific trials are required.
A 2013 article summarized the findings of 26 clinical studies on the use of melatonin to reduce seizures in people with epilepsy. Researchers found mixed and inconclusive results. It may be the case that melatonin can reduce seizures in some people, but increase them in others. More large, controlled studies are needed in order to understand how melatonin levels are related to epilepsy, and whether melatonin supplements can safely and effectively be used to treat seizures.
Although supplementing with certain nutrients may help prevent deficiencies caused by AEDs and help you feel your best, taking high doses of vitamins has not been proven to reduce the risk of seizures. In fact, taking high doses of any vitamin or mineral can be very dangerous.
Massage and aromatherapy may help promote relaxation and reduce stress.
There is no conclusive evidence that acupuncture, chiropractic treatments, or any herbal supplement can reduce seizures.
Some insurers will cover certain CAT therapies, but others may not cover any, or may not cover the specific therapy you want to try. Out-of-pocket costs for CAT therapies may be expensive.
Depending on where you live, it may be difficult to obtain some CAT therapies.
Overdoses of vitamins and minerals may cause serious side effects.
Medical marijuana may not be legal in your state. If it is, it may not be covered by insurance, and it may be expensive. Marijuana can have side effects including nausea, dry mouth, red eyes, vomiting, problems with heart or blood pressure, depression, anxiety, depression, dizziness, sleepiness and sexual dysfunction. Marijuana should not be used by pregnant women.
Melatonin should be used with caution and physician oversight in children. Melatonin may interact with other hormones, which may result in the disturbance of growth patterns in adolescents. Melatonin may increase the risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and seizures in some people.