Common Complications of Epilepsy

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2021

Epilepsy is a neurological (brain) disease that causes people to have seizures. With epilepsy, brain cells send too many electrical signals, too quickly. This brain storm can cause a variety of changes, including loss of consciousness, muscle spasms, repeating movements, and more.1,2

Not all seizures are harmful. But seizures often lead to complications such as:1-3

Quality of life

Adults with epilepsy often lose their sense of independence. They may lose their jobs or be underemployed. Many lose their driver’s license if their seizures include loss of consciousness. It is common to avoid socializing or exercise due to fear of having a seizure in public. All of this may have a negative impact on quality of life. Counseling and support groups can help.3

Mental health

Several mental health problems are common in people with epilepsy. Depression is the most common. This is followed by anxiety and other psychiatric disorders. People with epilepsy are at 3 times higher risk of suicide than the general population. The impact epilepsy can have on mental health makes regular mental health screenings and treatment vital.3

Memory and learning problems

Memory and learning problems are common in people with epilepsy. In fact, memory issues are one of the most common and frustrating issues of epilepsy. Doctors believe certain kinds of seizures impact memory and learning more than others. It depends in part on where in the brain seizures take place. Generalized seizures seem to affect memory less than focal seizures do. People with drug-resistant (refractory) epilepsy tend to have more memory problems. Plus, some anti-seizure drugs cause slowed thinking or drowsiness.4,5

Sleep disorders

Sleep problems are common in people with epilepsy. This is especially true with drug-resistant epilepsy. The most common sleep disorders with epilepsy are sleep apnea and insomnia. It is important to treat these conditions. Poor sleep can make you more likely to have seizures.3

Heart disease

Heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease is a common problem. These conditions can make it harder to treat epilepsy and lead to worse quality of life.3

Bone disease

People with epilepsy may develop osteoporosis (low bone density) and fractures. This is tied to long-term treatment with some anti-seizure drugs. Doctors often suggest people taking anti-seizure drugs also take a vitamin D supplement.3

Accidents and injuries

People with epilepsy may get hurt if they fall to the ground or lose consciousness while driving, bathing, or swimming. However, studies have found that this risk may be overstated. Most people have a low risk of injury, and most injuries are minor. But people with poorly controlled seizures have a high risk of injury.3

Pregnancy problems

There are 2 kinds of problems for women with epilepsy who get pregnant. First, seizures during pregnancy are a danger to both mother and baby. Second, some anti-seizure drugs increase the risk of birth defects. Women should work closely with their healthcare team on family planning. Some anti-seizure drugs are safe to take while pregnant.6

Status epilepticus

Most seizures last no longer than 2 minutes and end on their own without treatment. Status epilepticus is the name for seizures that last longer than 5 minutes. It is also status epilepticus when someone has 2 or more seizures within a 5-minute period and does not return to normal between the seizures. This is a medical emergency that requires an emergency room visit. If this happens, call 911 right away.7

Sudden death

Sudden unexpected death of epilepsy (SUDEP) is a scary, somewhat rare complication of the disease. Most sudden deaths occur at night or during sleep. It is a higher risk for people with poorly controlled epilepsy.8

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