What are Anti-Epileptics?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Anti-epileptics, also known as anticonvulsants, are medications used in the treatment of seizures. There are other names just as common, and people may prefer the term anti-seizure medicines, instead. These drugs, in general, come from a diverse background and though some were initially designed to treat seizures, they’ve found significantly more use in other ways. For example, there are three or four anti-epileptics principally used as mood stabilizers, and another set of the drugs, which are often used as tranquilizers.

Anti-epileptics, also known as anticonvulsants, are medications used in the treatment of seizures.
Anti-epileptics, also known as anticonvulsants, are medications used in the treatment of seizures.

It would be difficult to describe exactly what anti-epileptics do and how they act because groups of drugs may have different mechanisms (ways they work), which can help halt a seizure. Drugs like Gabitril® prevent the body from using excess GABA, a neurotransmitter. This is thought to be partially effective on certain forms of seizures, though it may not be of use in all cases. A group of drugs called benzodiazepines, including medicines like Valium®, Ativan®, and clonazepam, work in such a way that the body thinks it has additional GABA to work with, promoting relaxation for the person who uses small doses, and an effective means to stop seizures quickly in many emergency settings.

Another group of anti-epileptics are called sodium channel blockers, and drugs in this group include carbamazepine (Tegretol®), oxcarbazepine (Trileptel®), and lamotrigine (Lamictal®). These act on nerve fibers or axons and keep them from any activity and/or over-activity. Such medications include two of the four main medicines used in the treat of bipolar disorder and they are also of considerable interest and routinely prescribed for people with a variety of seizure disorders.

Anti-epileptics might work on other types of neurotransmitters. For instance Topamax® affects glutamate. Some of these drugs inhibit the way the body processes calcium instead. There are also other things that could be called anti-epileptics but are not drugs. For instance, the ketogenic diet is a high fat diet that has been able to successfully treat some forms of seizure disorder, provided it is adhered to rigidly.

The variety of anti-epileptics makes discussion of side effects challenging. Each of these medicines may work differently, and a number of them are best used in specific situations. As with any medication available, a certain level of side effects are expected, and these could include: tiredness/sleepiness from medications, reduction in efficacy of hormonal birth control, changes in thinking/focus, a variety of stomach upset issues, changes in sleep patterns, headache or other pains, and development of skin rashes.

It’s best to talk with doctors about each medicine so side effects are fully understood. Patients can use this time to discuss any other medications they take or conditions they have that might pose a problem. Women who take anti-epileptics and are planning a pregnancy must pursue a very careful path. Many of these medications can have adverse effects on the fetus, but so can seizures. Effort to control disease without harming a developing child needs to be made through careful drug choice.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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