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Epilepsy in adults

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Epilepsy and seizures article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

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What is epilepsy in adults?1 2

A seizure is the transient occurrence of signs or symptoms due to abnormal excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain. Seizures can present as a disturbance of consciousness, behaviour, cognition, emotion, motor function, or sensation. An isolated seizure can be caused by toxic, metabolic, structural, and infectious factors and should not be confused with epilepsy.

  • Focal seizures originate in networks limited to one hemisphere, and may be localised or more widely distributed. Focal seizures are divided into those with retained awareness or impaired awareness.

  • Generalised seizures originate in bilaterally distributed networks, and can include cortical and subcortical structures (but not necessarily the whole cortex). Generalised seizures may be tonic-clonic (the term generalised tonic-clonic is now preferred to 'grand mal'), isolated tonic or clonic, myoclonic (brief, shock-like muscle contractions) or absence ('petit mal').

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder in which a person experiences recurring seizures. Epilepsy is not a single diagnosis but is a symptom with many underlying causes.3 The International League Against Epilepsy describes epilepsy as a disease of the brain defined by any of the following conditions:

  • At least two unprovoked seizures occurring more than 24 hours apart.

  • One unprovoked seizure and a probability of further seizures similar to the general recurrence risk (at least 60%) after two unprovoked seizures, occurring over the next 10 years.

  • Diagnosis of an epilepsy syndrome.

Convulsive status epilepticus is a prolonged convulsive seizure lasting for five minutes or longer, or recurrent seizures one after the other without recovery in-between.

Adults presenting with a suspected seizure should be seen by a specialist in the diagnosis and management of the epilepsies within two weeks of presentation.4 A wrong diagnosis of epilepsy in adults can cause severe restrictions on a patient's lifestyle as well as unnecessary side-effects from long-term medication.

Epileptic seizures and epilepsy syndromes in adults should be classified according to the description of seizure, the seizure type, the epilepsy syndrome and the aetiology. The seizure type(s) and epilepsy syndrome, aetiology and comorbidity should be accurately determined because failure to classify the epilepsy syndrome correctly can lead to inappropriate treatment and persistence of seizures.5

There are a number of other forms of epilepsy, especially in children. See the separate Epilepsy in Children and Young People article for further information.

Patients with learning disabilities5

Important information

Diagnosis of epilepsy in adults with learning difficulties can be difficult. Confusion may arise between stereotypical or other behaviours and seizure activity.

Particular attention should be paid to the possibility of adverse cognitive and behavioural effects of anti-epileptic drug (AED) therapy.

All adults with epilepsy and learning disabilities should have a risk assessment - eg, bathing and showering, preparing food, using electrical equipment, the suitability of independent living.

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How common is epilepsy in adults?1

  • The prevalence of active epilepsy in adults and children is 5-10 cases per 1,000 - but with 5-30% of these misdiagnosed as having epilepsy.3

  • Epilepsy affects over 70 million people globally. Studies suggest that the lifetime risk of having a single seizure is 8-10%, and there is a 3% risk of developing epilepsy.

  • A systematic review and meta-analysis of international studies found a point prevalence of epilepsy of 6.38 per 1,000 people and lifetime prevalence of 7.60 per 1,000 people.

  • The incidence of epilepsy in low-income countries is higher than that for high-income countries but the reasons for this are not clear.

  • Incidence varies with age, with the highest risk in infants and people over the age of 50 years. The incidence of new-onset epilepsy in elderly people is increasing.

  • Approximately a third of people with epilepsy in the UK have an anatomically identifiable cause (symptomatic epilepsy) - eg, cerebrovascular disease, cerebral tumour, head injury. This is the most common cause of epilepsy occurring in the elderly.

  • People with learning difficulties have higher rates of epilepsy than the general population (about 25% of the total of people with epilepsy and 60% of people with treatment-resistant epilepsy).

Causes of epilepsy in adults

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Symptoms of epilepsy in adults2

Epilepsy in adults may be difficult to diagnose in the early stages, especially in the absence of a witnessed account. A clear history from the patient and an eyewitness to the attack provide the most important diagnostic information.

Generalised seizures in adults cause a disturbance in consciousness. The classic GTC seizure progresses through tonic, clonic and postictal phases. The postictal phase is often associated with headache and drowsiness. GTC seizures are often associated with tongue-biting and incontinence. Whatever the cause, the patient may have amnesia for both the event and its exact circumstances.

Absence seizures cause an interruption to mental activity for less than 30 seconds. They rarely persist into adulthood.

Features suggesting genetic generalised epilepsies include:2

  • Childhood or teenage onset.

  • Triggered by sleep deprivation and alcohol.

  • Early morning tonic-clonic seizures or myoclonic jerks.

  • Short absence seizures photoparoxysmal response on electroencephalography (EEG).

  • Generalised 3 per second spike and wave or polyspike and wave on EEG.

Features suggesting focal epilepsies include:2

  • History of potential cause.

  • Aura.

  • Focal motor activity during seizure.

  • Automatisms.

Complex focal seizures may have features of:

  • Motor: automatism, lip-smacking, plucking at clothes, hair.

  • Sensory: transient paraesthesiae.

  • Autonomic: odd epigastric sensation, nausea, abnormal taste or smell.

  • Psychiatric: unreality, déjà vu, fear.


  • There may be a clear precipitating cause - eg, inadequate sleep, alcohol abuse or medications such as tricyclic antidepressants, which lower the seizure threshold.

  • It is common for seizure frequency to vary throughout the menstrual cycle. In ovulatory cycles, peaks occur around the time of ovulation and in the few days before menstruation. In anovulatory cycles, there is an increase in seizures during the second half of the menstrual cycle.6

  • Possible seizure-related symptoms include:

    • Sudden falls.

    • Involuntary jerky movements of limbs whilst awake.

    • Blank spells.

    • Unexplained incontinence of urine with loss of awareness, or in sleep.

    • Odd events occurring in sleep - eg, fall from bed, jerky movements, automatisms.

    • Episodes of confused behaviour with impaired awareness.

    • Possible simple focal seizures.

    • Epigastric fullness sensation.

    • Déjà vu.

    • Premonition.

    • Fear.

    • Elation, depression.

    • Depersonalisation, derealisation.

    • Inability to understand or express language (written or spoken).

    • Loss of memory, disorientation.

    • Olfactory, gustatory, visual, auditory hallucinations.

    • Focal motor or somatosensory deficit, or positive symptoms (jerking, tingling).


  • Examination is usually unremarkable.

  • Check for any neurological or cerebrovascular signs.

  • Skin examination may reveal café-au-lait spots (neurofibromatosis), port-wine stain (Sturge-Weber syndrome) or adenoma sebaceum (tuberous sclerosis).

Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy5 2

Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is defined as sudden, unexpected, unwitnessed, non-traumatic, non-drowning death of a person with epilepsy, with or without a seizure, excluding documented status epilepticus, and in whom post-mortem examination does not reveal a structural or toxicological cause of death.

The reported incidence of SUDEP depends on the populations studied but community-based studies give incidences of between 0.09 and 0.35/1,000 patient years. The risk of epilepsy-related death is increased in people with:

  • Previous brain injury.

  • Previous central nervous system infection.

  • Metastatic cancer.

  • Previous stroke.

  • Abnormal neurological examination findings.

Seizure type and frequency: GTC seizures are the principal risk factor for SUDEP. Early identification of treatment-resistant epilepsy and referral for assessment for epilepsy surgery to reduce seizure frequency may reduce incidence of SUDEP.

  • SUDEP is the most common cause of death directly related to epilepsy and most frequently occurs in people with chronic epilepsy.7

  • Information provided to people with epilepsy and carers should take account of the small but definite risk of SUDEP.

  • Potentially modifiable risk factors for SUDEP include:

    • Non-adherence to medication.

    • Alcohol and drug misuse.

    • Focal to bilateral tonic-clonic seizures or generalised tonic-clonic seizures.

    • Uncontrolled seizures.

    • Living alone.

    • Sleeping alone without supervision.

  • SUDEP seems to occur more commonly during sleep and more often affects young adults with medically intractable epilepsy (especially tonic-clonic seizures), those with neurological comorbidity and patients receiving AED polytherapy.8

  • The risk of SUDEP can be reduced by optimising seizure control and being aware of the potential consequences of nocturnal seizures.

  • Interventions to help reduce the risk of SUDEP may include:

    • Introducing or increasing night-time supervision - eg, using a night monitor for people with epilepsy who have seizures during sleep and have been assessed to be at higher risk of epilepsy-related death.

    • Supporting people with epilepsy to take their medications as prescribed to reduce seizures.

Differential diagnosis5 9

Misdiagnosis of epilepsy in adults is common. The conditions most frequently confused with epilepsy in adults include vasovagal syncope, cardiac syncope and non-epileptic attack disorder. Conditions that may mimic seizures include migraine, parasomnias, movement disorders, metabolic disturbances and panic disorder.2

Investigation2 5

  • Appropriate blood tests (eg, glucose, electrolytes, calcium, renal function, liver function, and urine biochemistry) to identify potential causes and/or to identify any significant comorbidity.

  • 12-lead ECG after a first suspected seizure, to help identify cardiac-related conditions that could mimic an epileptic seizure.

  • Antibody testing should be considered for people with new-onset epilepsy if autoimmune encephalitis is suspected.

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG):

    • If the person's history and examination suggests an epileptic seizure, and a diagnosis of epilepsy is suspected, consider a routine EEG carried out while awake to support diagnosis and provide information about seizure type or epilepsy syndrome.

    • An EEG may be used to help to determine seizure type and epilepsy syndrome. Do not use EEG to exclude a diagnosis of epilepsy.

    • If an EEG is requested after a first seizure, it should be performed as soon as possible (ideally within 72 hours after the seizure).

    • Discuss the benefits and risks of provoking manoeuvres during EEG, such as hyperventilation and photic stimulation. If agreed, include provoking manoeuvres during routine EEG to assess a suspected first seizure.

    • If routine EEG is normal, consider a sleep-deprived EEG if agreed after discussing the benefits and risks.

    • If routine and sleep-deprived EEG results are normal and diagnostic uncertainty persists, consider ambulatory EEG (for up to 48 hours).

    • An EEG should not be performed in the case of probable syncope because of the possibility of a false positive result.

    • Repeated standard EEGs may be helpful when the diagnosis of the epilepsy or the syndrome is unclear.

    • Long-term video or ambulatory EEG may be used in the assessment when there are diagnostic difficulties after clinical assessment and standard EEG.

  • Neuroimaging:

    • An MRI scan should be offered for anyone diagnosed with epilepsy, unless they have idiopathic generalised epilepsy or self-limited epilepsy with centrotemporal spikes. The MRI should be carried out within six weeks of the MRI referral.

    • If MRI is contra-indicated, a CT scan should be considered.

    • MRI scans must be reported by a radiologist with expertise in paediatric or adult neuroradiology, as appropriate.

    • If seizures are ongoing despite treatment, and diagnosis remains unclear, consider an additional review of MRI scans by a specialist in paediatric or adult neuroradiology within a tertiary centre.

    • An additional MRI scan should be considered if the original scan was suboptimal, there are new features to their epilepsy, idiopathic generalised epilepsy or self-limited epilepsy with centrotemporal spikes has not responded to first-line treatment, or if surgery is being considered.

    • A CT scan should not be carried out for people with established epilepsy presenting at an emergency department after a typical seizure, unless there are other concerns.

  • Short-term video-EEG, preferably with suggestion, should be available for the investigation and diagnosis of suspected epilepsy and non-epileptic attack disorder. Inpatient video-EEG monitoring may be useful for patients who present diagnostic difficulties.

  • Polysomnography may be used to confirm a diagnosis of sleep-related epilepsy.

  • Handheld video: asking family members or friends to video record events should be considered in patients with uncertain diagnosis. Consent from the patient should always be sought in advance.

Neuropsychological assessment5

Neuropsychological assessment should be considered when it is important to evaluate learning disabilities and cognitive dysfunction, particularly in regard to language and memory. Referral for a neuropsychological assessment is indicated:

  • When the person with epilepsy is having educational or occupational difficulties.

  • When an MRI has identified abnormalities in cognitively important brain regions.

  • When there are reported memory or other cognitive deficits and/or cognitive decline.

Genetic testing2

  • Any uncertainties about whether to offer genetic testing or which tests to offer to a person with epilepsy should be discussed with a neurologist or geneticist.

  • Whole-genome sequencing should be considered for people with epilepsy of unknown cause if any of the following apply:

    • Aged under 2 years when epilepsy started.

    • Clinical features suggestive of a specific genetic epilepsy syndrome (eg, Dravet's syndrome).

    • Additional clinical features such as a learning disability, autism spectrum disorder, a structural abnormality (eg, dysmorphism or congenital malformation), or unexplained cognitive or memory decline.

  • Whole-genome sequencing should be considered for people with epilepsy of unknown cause who were aged between 2 and 3 years when epilepsy started, if clinically agreed by a specialist multidisciplinary team.

Treatment and management of epilepsy in adults5

See also the article Epilepsy and Pregnancy.

  • All adults with epilepsy should have a comprehensive care plan, which should include lifestyle issues as well as medical issues.

  • Epilepsy specialist nurses (ESNs) should be an integral part of the network of care.

  • A Cochrane review found that two types of intervention (specialist epilepsy nurse and self management education) showed some evidence of benefit; there was no clear evidence that other service models substantially improved outcomes for adults with epilepsy.10

  • One study showed that patient access to primary care appointments and being seizure-free for 12 months were associated with lower hospital admission rates.11

  • People with epilepsy, particularly those with a genetic epilepsy, should be advised that sleep deprivation may precipitate seizures and be provided with advice to obtain sufficient sleep with a regular sleep pattern.2

The decision whether or not to start AED treatment must be based on the relative risks of recurrent seizures and the commitment to long-term medication with potential adverse effects. AEDs should not be given until the diagnosis of epilepsy has been confirmed.2

Management of provoked seizures2

Provoked seizures are defined as occurring within seven days of an acute condition such as encephalitis, head injury, cerebral infarction, craniotomy and cerebral haemorrhage. Seizures can be provoked by:

  • Acute metabolic disturbances, treatment with certain drugs and drug withdrawal (eg, alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates).

  • Drug misuse (alcohol, heroin, cocaine, methadone, amfetamine, ecstasy).

The risk of recurrence of such provoked seizures can be reduced by correction or withdrawal of the provocative factor. Following an acute brain insult, AEDs used to treat the provoked seizures should be withdrawn (unless unprovoked seizures occur later). Longer-term AED treatment is only indicated if unprovoked seizures occur.

Patients with seizures provoked by alcohol or substance misuse may benefit from referral to addiction services and other support agencies.

Drug treatment

Full details are given in the articles on Anticonvulsants used for Generalised Seizures and Anticonvulsants used for Focal Seizures.

  • The AED treatment strategy should be individualised according to the seizure type, epilepsy syndrome, co-medication and comorbidity, lifestyle and the preferences of the person and their family and/or carers as appropriate.

  • The diagnosis of epilepsy in adults needs to be critically evaluated if events continue despite an optimal dose of a first-line AED.

  • Consistent supply to the adult with epilepsy of a particular manufacturer's AED preparation is recommended. Different preparations of some AEDs may vary in bioavailability or pharmacokinetic profiles.

  • Treatment should be with a single AED wherever possible. If the initial treatment is unsuccessful then monotherapy using another drug can be tried.

  • If an AED has failed because of adverse effects or continued seizures, a second drug should be started and built up to an adequate or maximum tolerated dose and then the first drug should be tapered off slowly.

  • Combination therapy should only be considered when attempts at monotherapy with AEDs have not resulted in seizure freedom. If trials of combination therapy do not bring about worthwhile benefits, treatment should revert to the regimen (monotherapy or combination therapy) that has proved most acceptable.

  • If using carbamazepine, offer controlled-release carbamazepine preparations.

  • Epilepsy is resistant to drug treatment in a third of patients.12 Of the newer drugs, the broad-spectrum AEDs levetiracetam, topiramate and zonisamide have multiple mechanisms of action and are often chosen in drug-resistant epilepsy.13

NB: do not offer sodium valproate to women or girls of childbearing potential (including young girls who are likely to need treatment into their childbearing years), unless other options are ineffective or not tolerated and the pregnancy prevention programme is in place.

Initiation of drug treatment

  • AED therapy should only be started once the diagnosis of epilepsy is confirmed, except in exceptional circumstances. AED therapy should be initiated by a specialist.

  • Treatment with AED therapy is generally recommended after a second epileptic seizure. AED therapy should be considered and discussed after a first unprovoked seizure if:

    • There is a neurological deficit.

    • The EEG shows unequivocal epileptic activity.

    • The patient considers the risk of having a further seizure unacceptable.

    • Brain imaging shows a structural abnormality.

Continuation of drug treatment

  • Maintain a high level of vigilance for adverse effects of treatment.

  • Continuing AED therapy should be planned by a specialist but part of an agreed treatment plan and the needs of the patient and their family and/or carers as appropriate should be taken into account.

  • If management is straightforward, continuing AED therapy can be prescribed in primary care if local circumstances and/or licensing allow.

  • Adherence to treatment can be optimised with the following:

    • Educating patients and their families and/or carers in the understanding of their condition and the rationale of treatment.

    • Reducing the stigma associated with the condition.

    • Using simple medication regimens.

    • Positive relationships between healthcare professionals, the adult with epilepsy and their family and/or carers.

  • Regular blood test monitoring is not recommended as routine and should be done only if clinically indicated. Indications for monitoring of AED blood levels are:

    • Detection of non-adherence to the prescribed medication.

    • Suspected toxicity.

    • Adjustment of phenytoin dose.

    • Management of pharmacokinetic interactions (eg, changes in bioavailability, changes in elimination, co-medication with interacting drugs).

    • Specific clinical conditions - eg, status epilepticus, organ failure and certain situations in pregnancy.

  • Examples of blood tests include:

    • Before surgery - clotting studies in those on sodium valproate.

    • FBC, electrolytes, liver enzymes, vitamin D levels and other tests of bone metabolism (eg, serum calcium and alkaline phosphatase) every 2-5 years for patients taking enzyme-inducing drugs.

    • Asymptomatic minor abnormalities in test results are not necessarily an indication for changes in medication.

Withdrawal of drug treatment

  • The decision to continue or withdraw medication should be taken after a full discussion of the risks and benefits of continuing or withdrawing AED therapy. Withdrawal of AEDs must be managed by, or be under the guidance of, the specialist.

  • The risks and benefits of continuing or withdrawing AED therapy should be discussed when the person with epilepsy has been seizure-free for at least two years.

  • Withdrawal of AED treatment should be carried out slowly (at least 2-3 months) and one drug should be withdrawn at a time.

  • Particular care should be taken when withdrawing benzodiazepines and barbiturates (may take up to six months or longer) because of the possibility of drug-related withdrawal symptoms and/or seizure recurrence.

  • There should be an agreed plan that if seizures recur, the last dose reduction is reversed and medical advice is sought.

Psychological interventions

  • Psychological interventions have not been proven to affect seizure frequency and are not an alternative to pharmacological treatment.

  • Psychological interventions (relaxation, cognitive behavioural therapy, biofeedback) may be used in conjunction with AED therapy in patients when seizure control is inadequate with optimal AED therapy.14

Complementary therapy2

There is no consistent evidence to support, or definitively exclude, the use of any particular type of complementary therapy to improve seizure frequency in patients with epilepsy. Some aromatherapy preparations (eg, hyssop, rosemary, sweet fennel, sage and wormwood) may have an alerting effect on the brain and so may exacerbate seizures.


  • Adults with epilepsy should have a regular structured review and be registered with a general medical practice.

  • Adults with epilepsy should have a regular structured review with their GP but depending on the person's wishes, circumstances and epilepsy, the review may be carried out by the specialist.

  • The maximum interval between reviews should be one year but the frequency of review will be determined by the patient's epilepsy and their wishes. The interval is usually between 3 and 12 months.

  • Treatment should be reviewed at regular intervals to ensure that the patient is not maintained for long periods on treatment that is ineffective or poorly tolerated and that concordance with prescribed medication is maintained.

  • Annual review should include an enquiry about side-effects and a discussion of the treatment plan to ensure concordance and adherence to medication.

  • At the review, there should be access to written and visual information, counselling services, information about voluntary organisations, epilepsy specialist nurses, appropriate investigations and referral to tertiary services, including surgery, when indicated.

Epilepsy in adults - further treatment and management5

Referral for complex or refractory epilepsy

  • If seizures are not controlled, there is diagnostic uncertainty or there is treatment failure, adults with epilepsy should be referred to tertiary services soon for further assessment. Referral should be considered when one or more of the following criteria are present:

    • The epilepsy is not controlled with medication within two years.

    • Management is unsuccessful after two drugs.

    • A patient experiences, or is at risk of, unacceptable side-effects from medication.

    • There is a unilateral structural lesion.

    • There is psychological and/or psychiatric comorbidity.

    • There is diagnostic doubt as to the nature of the seizures and/or seizure syndrome.

  • Behavioural or developmental regression or inability to identify the epilepsy syndrome should result in immediate referral to tertiary services.

  • Patients with specific syndromes such as Sturge-Weber syndrome, the hemispheric syndromes, Rasmussen's encephalitis and hypothalamic hamartoma should be referred to a tertiary epilepsy service.

  • Psychiatric comorbidity and/or negative baseline investigations should not be a contra-indication for referral to a tertiary service.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and deep brain stimulation (DBS)

  • If resective epilepsy surgery is not suitable for a person with drug-resistant seizures, vagus nerve stimulation can be considered as an add-on treatment to antiepileptic medication.

  • For deep brain stimulation, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends:15

    • For anterior thalamic targets, the evidence is limited in quantity and quality; therefore this procedure should only be used with special arrangements for clinical governance, consent, and audit or research.

    • For targets other than the anterior thalamus, the evidence is inadequate in quantity and quality; therefore this procedure should only be used in the context of research.

Ketogenic diet

A ketogenic diet may be considered for people with certain childhood-onset epilepsy syndromes, or for drug-resistant epilepsy if other treatment options have been unsuccessful or are not appropriate.


The introduction of newer AEDs with better tolerability and fewer drug-drug interactions has made a significant impact on the treatment of epilepsy. However, a significant proportion of patients still have intractable epilepsy.16 Surgery is increasingly used as treatment for refractory focal epilepsy.17 18

Some neurosurgical procedures involve resection of part of the brain and the aim is to obtain complete seizure freedom. For the most commonly performed procedures, involving anterior and medial temporal lobe resection, about 70% of patients will become seizure-free. Other procedures are palliative and include callosotomy, subpial transection, VNS and DBS.2

  • Modern techniques for the accurate localisation of epileptic discharge and the recognition of specific seizure patterns have increased the role of surgery in the management of drug-resistant epilepsy.18

  • Neurosurgical treatment has particular benefit for selected people with refractory focal epilepsy.19

  • Surgical operations for epilepsy include anteromedial temporal resection (the most frequently performed operation for medial temporal lobe epilepsy), corpus callosotomy (for generalised epilepsy syndromes), functional hemispherectomy and multiple subpial transection.

NICE recommends referral for resective epilepsy surgery assessment for people with drug-resistant epilepsy, including those without identified MRI abnormalities, and for people with MRI abnormalities that indicate a high risk of drug-resistant epilepsy.


Driving legally can be affected by epilepsy: see Neurological Disorders - DVLA Guide for more details.


  • Social stigmatisation and occupational issues, including time off from work.

  • Psychosocial problems: anxiety, depression and suicide rates are more common than in the general population.2

  • Developmental problems in children with early-onset seizures. Specific cognitive and learning difficulties impacting on education if not recognised.

  • AED side-effects; risk of fetal malformation associated with AEDs.

  • Accidents resulting from a seizure often cause injuries - eg, head injuries, lacerations, fractures and burns.

  • Studies have suggested that women with epilepsy are at increased risk of fractures, osteoporosis and osteomalacia.6

  • Increased mortality rate:

    • Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP).

    • Deaths due to accidents during seizures.

    • Deaths due to status epilepticus.

Prognosis1 2

  • 90% of people with generalised tonic-clonic seizures only, will achieve seizure control.

  • In children and adults with epilepsy, approximately 70% will be in remission (seizure-free for five years on or off drug treatment), but 30% will have ongoing seizures. The risk of recurrent seizures is highest in the first 12 months and falls to less than 10% after two years.

  • The number of seizures in the six months after first presentation is an important predictive factor for both early and long-term remission of seizures.

  • A positive response to the first antiepileptic drug treatment is a strong predictor of a favourable long-term outcome.

  • Remission becomes less likely with longer persistence of seizures.

  • Factors suggesting a poorer prognosis include a combination of focal dyscognitive seizures and tonic-clonic seizures, clustering of seizures, abnormal physical signs and the presence of learning difficulties.

  • Studies report premature death in adults with epilepsy compared to the general population. The majority of these deaths occur in people under 55 years of age.

  • Premature death in epilepsy has a wide variety of causes, including alcohol misuse, drowning, falls, drug poisoning and motor vehicle accidents.

  • Another significant cause of premature mortality is suicide. A population-based study of suicide in epilepsy reported a suicide rate in people with epilepsy three times higher than in the general population, with rates increased further in people with epilepsy who had a comorbid psychiatric condition.

Further reading and references

  1. Epilepsy; NICE CKS, April 2022 (UK access only)
  2. Diagnosis and management of epilepsy in adults; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (2015 - updated 2018)
  3. Nunes VD, Sawyer L, Neilson J, et al; Diagnosis and management of the epilepsies in adults and children: summary of BMJ. 2012 Jan 26;344:e281. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e281.
  4. The epilepsies in adults, NICE Quality Standard, February 2013
  5. Epilepsies in children, young people and adults; NICE guidance (2022)
  6. Crawford PM; Managing epilepsy in women of childbearing age. Drug Saf. 2009;32(4):293-307. doi: 10.2165/00002018-200932040-00004.
  7. Surges R, Thijs RD, Tan HL, et al; Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy: risk factors and potential pathomechanisms. Nat Rev Neurol. 2009 Sep;5(9):492-504. Epub 2009 Aug 11.
  8. Asadi-Pooya AA, Sperling MR; Clinical Features of Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. J Clin Neurophysiol. 2009 Aug 24.
  9. Transient loss of consciousness ('blackouts') management in adults and young people; NICE Clinical Guideline (August 2010 last updated November 2023)
  10. Bradley PM, Lindsay B, Fleeman N; Care delivery and self management strategies for adults with epilepsy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Feb 4;2:CD006244. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006244.pub3.
  11. Calderon-Larranaga A, Soljak M, Cowling TE, et al; Association of primary care factors with hospital admissions for epilepsy in England, 2004-2010: National observational study. Seizure. 2014 Sep;23(8):657-61. doi: 10.1016/j.seizure.2014.05.008. Epub 2014 May 23.
  12. Kwan P, Schachter SC, Brodie MJ; Drug-resistant epilepsy. N Engl J Med. 2011 Sep 8;365(10):919-26.
  13. Brodie MJ, Kwan P; Newer drugs for focal epilepsy in adults. BMJ. 2012 Jan 26;344:e345. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e345.
  14. Ramaratnam S, Baker GA, Goldstein LH; Psychological treatments for epilepsy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Jul 16;(3):CD002029.
  15. Deep brain stimulation for refractory epilepsy in adults; NICE Interventional procedures guidance, August 2020
  16. Kawai K; Epilepsy surgery: current status and ongoing challenges. Neurol Med Chir (Tokyo). 2015 May 15;55(5):357-66. doi: 10.2176/nmc.ra.2014-0414. Epub 2015 Apr 28.
  17. de Tisi J, Bell GS, Peacock JL, et al; The long-term outcome of adult epilepsy surgery, patterns of seizure remission, and relapse: a cohort study. Lancet. 2011 Oct 15;378(9800):1388-95.
  18. Balabanov A, Rossi MA; Epilepsy surgery and vagal nerve stimulation: what all neurologists should know. Semin Neurol. 2008 Jul;28(3):355-63. Epub 2008 Jul 24.
  19. Rossetti AO, Hurwitz S, Logroscino G, et al; Prognosis of status epilepticus: role of aetiology, age, and consciousness impairment at presentation. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2006 May;77(5):611-5.
  20. Assessing fitness to drive: guide for medical professionals; Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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