Treatment, Not Medicine, for Seizures

For quite some time now medications were the only way to treat epileptic seizures. Even with medication – sometimes several medications – the patient often continues to have some seizure activity. There now are other ways to effectively treat seizures including one technique called the Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Good candidates for the procedure are those with cerebral palsy, mental retardation or other developmental delays.

The VNS therapy is a procedure which places a small device just underneath the skin. An electrical wire is run from the device to the neck area where it is hooked to a wire that travels along the Vagus nerve. The wire emits a mild electrical current which stimulate the nerve. The specially trained physician then programs the VNS device to automatically send the electrical impulses to the nerve.

On-demand pulses can be given, should the patient have a seizure, by using a special magnet which can be carried in the care giver’s pocket or worn on the wrist. By simply holding the magnet up to the Vagus nerve the care giver can administer additional current which can often stop the seizure or shorten the length of the attack.

Although no treatment or medication stops seizures completely the Vagus Nerve Stimulation system a patient can see up to a 90% reduction in the frequency of seizures. And for some, the seizures are even fewer than that.

The surgery to insert the device under the skin, in the chest area, in addition to attaching the wire to the Vagus nerve takes a couple of hours. The procedure is often done on an out-patient schedule with the entire procedure taking less than 4 hours. The power generator will be slightly visible by a bulge just under the skin below the left collarbone but is easily concealed with clothing. The pack is good for 6 to 11 years, at which time, it will be replaced.

Some physicians turn the device on immediately after the surgery where others opt to wait a week to 10 days to make all has gone well following the procedure. The physician can choose from different settings so that the stimulation can be provided more or less often, as needed. For instance, someone with many seizures that are severe may need a stronger current than someone who has few seizures. Until the setting is adjusted perfectly the patient will need to see the doctor every couple of weeks, followed by a period of monthly visitations.

The stimulation is often done for 30 seconds with a 5 minute non-current period. The most common side effects of the therapy are a tickling in the throat, shortness of breath, cough or a change in the patient’s voice during the time of the electrical currents.

The special magnet can be used to interrupt the stimulation for short periods of time. To do this the magnet must be taped or held in place. One reason the stimulation may need to be stopped is if the patient now gags or chokes when eating – a less common side effect of the treatment.

The magnet must be kept away from credit cards, tv’s, computers, microwaves and other magnets. After the doctor has adjusted the amount and frequency of the current and has monitored the patient for a few months the visits can then be reduced to only twice a year.

Some of the other benefits to having the Vagus procedure are easier recovery after seizures, shortened time of seizures, fewer seizure clusters, improvement in memory and verbal skills, reduction or elimination of current medications, and less mood swings, although not all patients will experience these improvements.

Anyone who has had the VNS procedure must notify their doctor before the onset of any medical treatment, whether it be X-ray, new medications or surgery. And patients with VNS device should never have treatments called Diathermy, used as a muscle pain therapy.

The procedure is a mild one with little pain but anesthesia is required during the surgery. If you or a loved one has epileptic seizures ask your physician if VNS may be a possibility.

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