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What are Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures?

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  • Written By: K.C. Bruning
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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Alcohol withdrawal seizures are one of the potential effects of abruptly ceasing heavy, regular consumption of alcoholic beverages. Up to a third of patients who suddenly stop drinking can experience seizures. Most alcohol withdrawal seizures are of a variety known as generalized tonic–clonic, which involves the whole body, though partial seizures are possible. The seizures tend to take place within hours of the last drink, anywhere from six hours to two days, and typically peak at 24 hours. Multiple seizures can occur during this time period: about three to four instances are common.

Consumption of alcohol affects the neuronal networks in the brain stem. These systems adapt to heavy levels of alcohol, in essence changing function. When alcohol, the element that caused that adaptation, is gone, the body goes into shock. The cells of the body must quickly abandon the adaptation they have made to the alcohol, but the supply has been cut off so abruptly that they are not able to make the adjustment quickly enough. A key factor in research focused on managing alcohol withdrawal seizures is the attempt to understand how these neuronal networks function and adapt themselves.

Repeated attempts to abruptly stop consuming alcohol can increase the possibility of withdrawal-related seizures. The severity and frequency of seizures can also increase with each attempt to detox. If the cycle of drinking and total cessation does not cease, the symptoms will usually worsen to the point of death.

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Individuals experiencing alcohol withdrawal seizures tend to shake and sweat heavily. Cramps, muscle pain and dehydration are common. There may also be an increased body temperature and unstable blood pressure.

Alcohol withdrawal seizures are potentially fatal and must receive emergency medical attention. Medical care is typically focused on stabilizing the patient. Anticonvulsants and benzodiazepines are often administered to stop and prevent the recurrence of new seizures. The patient may also be treated with oxygen, intravenous fluids, electrolytes, and other similar methods to bring balance back to the system.

As an alcoholic has severely compromised health, seizures may not necessarily be due to alcohol withdrawal. Doctors will typically examine a patient to rule out other conditions that could have potentially been brought on by the disease, including head injury, infections, and epilepsy. It is important to determine what causes the condition, as the treatment for alcohol withdrawal seizures is more short-term than the extended therapy required for the causes of most seizures.

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