Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder. Patients experience unprovoked and recurrent seizures — abnormal electrical activity in the brain. While epilepsy can strike anyone, it’s most common in young children and older adults, with about three million adults in the US and 470,000 children affected.
Though epilepsy isn’t curable, it is treatable, and patients can lead normal lives if they learn to manage the seizures. Some children are even able to outgrow it.
The expert team of neurologists at Memphis Neurology offers a wide range of epilepsy monitoring and treatment services. One way to treat medication-refractory cases is through vagus nerve stimulation. Here’s what you need to know.
Epilepsy is divided into two large categories, depending on where the abnormal electrical activity begins.
1. Focal seizures
Sometimes called partial seizures, focal seizures stem from activity within a single brain area. Sometimes they occur with a loss of consciousness or impaired awareness, and sometimes without. The specific symptoms depend on which brain area is affected.
Symptoms from focal seizures can easily be confused with other neurological disorders, including migraine, narcolepsy, and various mental illnesses. That’s why it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis from your neurologist, so they can determine what treatment will be most effective.
2. Generalized seizures
Generalized seizures appear to affect all areas of the brain and can be subdivided into six different types:
- Absence seizures (petit mal)
- Tonic seizures
- Atonic seizures, also called “drop” seizures
- Clonic seizures, which affect the face, neck, and arms
- Myoclonic seizures
- Tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal)
If you’re experiencing any type of seizure for the first time, you should seek out medical help as soon as possible.
How vagus nerve stimulation can treat epilepsy
Here at Memphis Neurology, we always start with conservative approaches to treatment. The first line of treatment is an anti-epileptic or anti-seizure medication. At least half of newly diagnosed patients become seizure-free with their first medication, and most see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of their seizures.
However, medication isn’t effective for everyone, or it causes too many adverse effects. If that’s the case, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) becomes an option.
VNS is a form of neuromodulation, designed to change how brain cells work by sending electrical stimulation via nerves to the specific areas involved in seizures.
The vagus nerve is part of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions that aren’t under voluntary control, such as breathing and heart rate. The nerve both sends information from the brain to other areas of the body and receives information back from the body.
Researchers still don’t know exactly how VNS works, but they believe it may control seizures by:
- Increasing blood flow in specific brain areas
- Raising levels of certain neurotransmitters, which nerves use to communicate
- Changing electroencephalogram (EEG, or brain wave) patterns during a seizure
The stimulation is generated by a small electrical device we implant under the skin in your chest. VNS has been approved by the FDA as an add-on therapy for adults and children at least four years old. Specifically, it’s used to treat focal or partial seizures that don’t respond to anti-seizure medications. It often reduces seizure frequency by 20-40%.
If you or your child has epilepsy and you’re having difficulty controlling the seizures, vagus nerve stimulation may be an option for you. Contact Memphis Neurology to learn more and to set up an evaluation with one of our neurologists. Call us at either location, or book online.