Seizures may occur during acute alcohol withdrawal, and are characterized by convulsions, muscle spasms, and twitching. Alcohol withdrawal can range from anxiety, nausea, insomnia, hallucinations, seizures, and delirium tremens. A supervised medical detoxification may be the safest way to treat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
What Does Alcohol Do To The Human Body?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that has stimulant properties as well. It has stimulant properties, because as a person drinks, certain neurotransmitters in their brain are flooded with adrenaline or norepinephrine. Most other drugs only work as either stimulant or depressant, but alcohol is different.
Alcohol is a small molecule that interacts with a lot of different neurotransmitters in the brain, including: GABA, endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, glutamate, and adrenaline. Alcohol causes dependency, partly because as a person drinks, the dopamine in the reward pathway of the brain is increased.
When a person feels any kind of pleasure, it’s because of that release of dopamine. Similarly, the endorphins produced by alcohol are what cause a person to feel “high.” When the glutamate system is affected by alcohol, it causes slurred speech, staggering, and blackouts.
So what happens when a person stops drinking? With repeated use of alcohol, the dopamine levels remain at a constant high in the brain. When alcohol is removed, the brain, which has learned to expect the heightened level of dopamine to remain constant, and in turn stopped producing it naturally, begins to go into the withdrawal stages. The most severe of which includes seizures and delirium tremens.
Most adults in the United States have experienced the calming effect produced by alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that “86.4 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime.” Keep in mind that not every person who drinks alcohol will become dependent upon it. There are factors that play a role in alcohol dependency, they may include a person’s: age, weight, height, and alcohol intake.
Alcohol dependency is characterized by craving, loss of control, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol abuse can also result in certain cancers, other health risks, and consequences. According to the National Library of Medicine, heavy drinking “can cause damage to the liver, brain, and other organs. Drinking during pregnancy can harm your baby. Alcohol also increases the risk of death from car crashes, injuries, homicide, and suicide.”
What Is The Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline?
Alcohol withdrawal is commonly experienced by a person who regularly abuses alcohol then stops suddenly. Someone doesn’t necessarily have to be alcohol dependent to experience withdrawals, but the chances will be greater in these cases.
There are three stages to alcohol withdrawal, the first of which can begin as early 6 hours after a person’s peak intoxication. The stages go from mild to moderate to severe, and can last anywhere from 5 to 7 days. Generally after a week, the majority of withdrawal symptoms will have subsided, however, some may persist for several weeks without proper treatment.
Not everyone will experience each of these symptoms with the same severity either, but the alcohol withdrawal timeline will look something like this:
- Stage 1: nervousness, insomnia, depression, nightmares, anxiety, fatigue, tremors, foggy thinking, mood swings, nausea, loss of appetite, and heart palpitations; 6 to 24 hours after peak intoxication.
- Stage 2: high blood pressure, increased body temperature, headache, clammy skin, profuse sweating, rapid breathing, worsening mood swings and irritability, unusual heart rate, and confusion; 24 to 72 hours after peak intoxication.
- Stage 3: fever, seizures, delirium tremens—hallucinations, severe mental confusion, and disorientation come with this stage; 72+ hours after peak intoxication.
Approximately 10 percent of patients will experience severe withdrawal symptoms. The mortality rate among patients exhibiting delirium tremens is anywhere from 5 to 25 percent.
Risk factors for prolonged or complicated alcohol withdrawal include lifetime or current long duration of alcohol consumption, lifetime prior detoxifications, prior seizures, prior episodes of delirium tremens, and current intense craving for alcohol (NIAAA).
What Are Seizures From Alcohol Withdrawal?
Seizures during acute alcohol withdrawal are characterized by muscle spasms, contractions, twitching, and convulsions. Seizures that begin locally with the twitching of a limb suggest a co-occurring disorder and need to be fully investigated (NIAAA).
A co-occurring disorder can refer to when an alcohol use disorder such as alcohol abuse, or alcoholism, occurs at the same time as a mental disorder like generalized anxiety, or depression. Co-occurring disorders seldom just disappear, and treatment may include a medical detoxification, or behavioral therapy to help someone stop drinking.
Similar to other alcohol withdrawal symptoms, not every person will experience seizures. Regardless, seizures occur in more than 5 percent of patients with acute alcohol withdrawal.
“More than 90 percent of alcohol withdrawal seizures occur within 48 hours after the patient stops drinking. Fewer than 3 percent of such seizures may occur 5 to 20 days after the last drink. Clinical data suggest that the likelihood of having withdrawal seizures, as well as the severity of those seizures, increases with the number of past withdrawals,” (NIAAA).
In other words, the number of detoxifications and withdrawal complications can increase the likelihood of seizures. The development of each is “ascribed to as cumulative long-term changes in brain excitability,” and is referred to as the kindling hypothesis.
Alcohol withdrawal can be a dangerous situation, and may need more than just an at-home detoxification. The seizures, and delirium tremens resulting from alcohol withdrawal can actually result in permanent brain damage.
Another result of delirium and cognitive impairment is called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is a chronic memory disorder that results from a nutritional deficiency, and can be completely debilitation, .
How Do I Safely Detox From Alcohol?
The first step in getting sober for most drinkers is a supervised medical detox. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, and should never be attempted alone.
When a person drinks heavily, they may become gaunt, malnourished, and not be able to process fluid or food normally.
During a medical detoxification at an inpatient rehab, a person can have nurse practitioners and physician assistants guide them through the process, which can include:
- safely removing alcohol from their body
- watching for seizures, hallucinations, and delirium tremens
- monitoring of:
- blood pressure
- body temperature
- vitamin, fluid, and food intake
- heart rate
- blood levels
- different chemicals in the body
- some require fluids or medicines intravenously
- medication-assisted therapy—sedative medicines until withdrawal is complete
After detoxification, the withdrawal symptoms should be pretty well taken care of, but other behavioral treatment programs should be considered. Detoxification merely takes care of the physical addiction to alcohol, but what a person is left with is the mental addiction.
Some of the different evidence-based treatments for a mental addiction to alcohol include:
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- Motivational Therapy
- Support Groups
- Individual and Group Therapy
- Aftercare Support
No matter the route that a person chooses, freedom from an alcohol addiction starts with the first step, and those who receive treatment are on the path to success. Alcohol addiction doesn’t necessarily have a cure, but it’s still treatable.
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Alcohol use disorders can manifest themselves after quitting alone is no longer an option. If you or someone you love is suffering from alcohol abuse or alcoholism, please reach out to us and we can work out a solution together. Contact us today.
For More Information Related to “Seizures from Alcohol Withdrawal” Be Sure To Check Out These Additional Resources From DrugRehab.org:
- How Common is Alcohol Abuse?
- Bone Marrow Suppression from Alcohol Abuse
- How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
- What Are The Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?
- What Does Alcohol Do To The Brain?
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – Alcohol Facts and Statistics
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal
U.S. National Library of Medicine – Alcohol Withdrawal