Drug addiction and the misuse of substances can cause an array of adverse health effects. People might be aware of the correlation between drug withdrawal and seizures, specifically in the withdrawal from alcohol or benzodiazepines. However, there are other instances in which substance abuse may result in a seizure.
Certain drugs can lead to the development of seizures and even trigger the onset of epilepsy. According to the National Library of Medicine, “Studies have estimated that 6% of new‐onset seizures and up to 9% of status epilepticus cases are due to drug toxicity.”
With that being said, individuals who use drugs medically or recreationally should be aware of the potential of drug-induced seizures and epilepsy.
What is Drug-Induced Epilepsy?
Seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. This is true for single occurring seizures and seizure disorders like epilepsy.
An individual’s brain functions by sending electrical impulses and signals to other parts of the body. When a seizure occurs, those electrical impulses become out of control, almost acting like a thunderstorm.
Epilepsy is a neurological condition that is characterized by experiencing two or more unprovoked seizures. Drug-induced epilepsy occurs when the use of prescription medication or illicit drug abuse causes an individual to experience seizures on two or more occasions.
According to a study, “Exposure to certain drugs and chemical substances can result in the abrupt onset of altered mental status with or without localized or generalized motor activity (convulsions) combined with epileptic‐like brain activity (seizures) seen on the electroencephalogram (EEG).”
There are many different types of seizures that individuals can suffer from. However, a study found that most drug-induced seizures are tonic-clonic seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures) are the type of seizure that most people are familiar with.
There are two categories of seizures; focal seizures and generalized onset seizures. Focal onset seizures start in one area of the brain and may spread to other areas, causing mild to moderate symptoms. Generalized seizures begin as focal seizures, spreading to both sides of the brain and stemming from abnormal regulation between the two regions of the brain.
The types of focal seizures include:
- Focal aware seizure (simple partial seizure)
- Focal unaware seizure (complex partial seizure)
The types of generalized onset seizures include:
- Absence seizures (petit mal seizures)
- Myoclonic seizures
- Tonic and atonic seizures
- Tonic, clonic, and tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures)
Signs and Symptoms of Seizures
Because individuals can have a variety of seizures as a result of drug use, let’s take a look at the general warning signs of seizures:
- Staring off into space
- Jerking movements of arms or legs
- Stiffening of the body
- Loss of consciousness
- Breathing problems or stopped breathing
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Falling suddenly
- Appearing confused or in a haze
- Nodding of the head rhythmically
- Rapidly blinking eyes and staring
The National Library of Medicine states, “Most drug‐induced seizures manifest as generalized tonic‐clonic motor activity (grand mal). Convulsive muscle activity, especially if prolonged, can lead to hypoxia, hypercarbia, pulmonary aspiration of gastric contents, lactic acidosis, hyperthermia, and rhabdomyolysis.”
Due to the possible effects of drug-induced seizures, emergency medical services must be contacted immediately if an individual begins displaying the signs of a seizure.
How Do Drugs Cause Seizures?
Most commonly, substances like alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, opioids, and benzodiazepines increase the risk of seizures. However, even prescription medications can cause an individual to experience a seizure or trigger the onset of epilepsy.
Every substance affects people differently, however, they all alter electrical impulses in the brain. If a drug or medication causes an individual’s electrical impulses to behave abnormally, they could experience a seizure.
Here are the three main ways that drugs cause seizures.
Prescription Drug-Induced Seizures
Prescription medications can cause seizures to occur even when they are taken as prescribed.
According to studies, the elderly are at a higher risk of experiencing the onset of a seizure or drug-induced epilepsy as a result of their prescription medication. In this study, it was noted that antidepressants like bupropion, venlafaxine, and certain tricyclic antidepressants are known to cause seizures in some cases. Additionally, some antipsychotics and prescription amphetamines can also have this effect.
Seizures from Recreational Drug Use
Certain illicit drugs like cocaine or synthetic marijuana (K2) are linked to the development of a seizure or the onset of pre-existing epilepsy.
A study on emergency room visits resulting from K2 or “spice” use found that this substance can cause individuals to experience tonic-clonic seizures for the first time. The National Library of Medicine reports that, in addition to synthetic marijuana, “a wide variety of illicit drugs induce a seizure, such as phencyclidine (PCP), inhalants, cocaine, and psychostimulants.”
Additionally, it is common for individuals to experience seizures when they are going through withdrawal. To explain, withdrawals occur when an individual is dependent on a drug and suddenly stops taking it, causing them to exhibit an array of symptoms. Both alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal are notorious for causing individuals to experience grand mal seizures.
Seizures as a Symptom of Overdose
Lastly, when an individual overdoses on a drug they could experience a seizure as a result. Typically, this occurs when an individual overdoses on a stimulant like cocaine, amphetamines, and prescription medications like Adderall or Ritalin.
In addition to stimulants, certain opioids may cause seizures in the case of an overdose. Fentanyl, for example, is known to cause an array of life-threatening symptoms, including grand mal seizures.
Other causes of seizures stemming from a drug overdose typically involve a mixture of multiple substances. Because of the commonality of drugs being laced with secondary substances, this occurs frequently. Also, polysubstance abuse is a major risk factor for drug overdoses and seizures.
Finding Help for Drug Addiction
Drug addiction is dangerous, especially when you consider the likelihood of experiencing an overdose or a seizure. If you or a loved one suffer from a substance use disorder, it’s time to consider attending addiction treatment.
At Recovery Centers, we can help you and your family find an addiction treatment program that suits your unique needs. Contact us today to get connected with an addiction treatment center near you.