Signs & symptoms of nocturnal epilepsy

Updated March 29, 2017

The hope of a good night's sleep is to awake refreshed. For people with nocturnal epilepsy---a disorder in which the patient experiences seizures in his sleep---sleeping can be more than a nightmare. Nocturnal epilepsy seizures occur while the patient sleeps, but the effects linger into the day, resulting in general fatigue and, in some cases, soreness. Medication and lifestyle awareness can lessen the impact of nocturnal epilepsy.


Because the seizures occur during sleep, nocturnal epilepsy sufferers may be unsure whether they are even having seizures. Upon awakening in the morning, you may sense that something has occurred but have no memory of it. You may be exhausted or sore but not sure why. A doctor can administer tests to determine whether you are having nocturnal seizures. One of these tests is an EEG---electroencephalogram---which measures the brain's activity. Based on the test results, the doctor can determine whether you have a form of epilepsy or if something else is causing your sleep disorder problems.


Nocturnal epilepsy is similar to the more familiar epilepsy, which causes seizures in patients who are awake. Nocturnal episodes tend to strike just as the patient slips into sleep or right before she awakes. The seizures are often tonic-clonic---also known as grand mal---and usually last less than a minute You may experience uneven and dramatic breathing and stiffening of the limbs, followed by jerking movements and deep sleep. You may bite your tongue. As with daytime seizures, there is little an observer can do; just wait it out and help the patient be comfortable after the seizure ends. Seizures themselves usually require no medical intervention. In many cases, medication can reduce the frequency of episodes, so proper diagnosis is important.


According to the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy in one form or another affects 2.7 million Americans. Nocturnal epilepsy seizures, while bothersome, may be less dangerous than daytime seizures experienced by epileptics. Because it is a sleep disorder, the patient is usually lying down in bed and unlikely to be injured in a fall. The greater effect is the impact nocturnal epilepsy has on the sleep cycle. A seizure interrupts the sleep cycle, returning the patient to the beginning. Depending on when the seizure occurs, you may find yourself very tired the day after the seizures occur, as your body reacts to loss of sleep.


Nocturnal epilepsy can be treated with medication. Studies show that up to 80 per cent of epilepsy patients achieve control of the seizure disorder with medication. Your doctor will choose a medication based on your test results and information about your sleep patterns and lifestyle. Doctor-patient cooperation, plenty of rest and a proper diet can reduce or eliminate the incidence of nocturnal epilepsy seizures.


Other disorders can mimic some of the symptoms of nocturnal epilepsy. There can be other reasons for tiredness upon waking and an overall lack of energy. Sleep apnoea stops breathing during the night due to airway obstruction, resulting in a seizure-type episode. Night terrors---mainly in children---and restless leg syndrome---in people of all ages---can be mistaken for nocturnal epilepsy. Again, diagnosis is important so that proper treatment can be administered and daytime living can be restored.

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About the Author

Thom Hunter is a former AT&T director of public relations and newspaper editor. He began writing professionally in 1976 and has penned books such as "Surviving Sexual Brokenness," released in November 2010 by WestBow Press. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from North Texas State University and is a former adjunct professor in the University of Oklahoma College of Journalism.