February 18, 2022

Going to an epilepsy monitoring unit? Here’s what to expect

About Epilepsy

Will you be staying at an epilepsy monitoring unit soon? Find out what to expect, how to prepare and what the purpose of going is.

Has your doctor suggested you visit an epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU)? Usually located in specialist epilepsy centers, EMU’s can be really helpful for diagnosing epilepsy or understanding your seizures in more depth.

So, what exactly happens at an epilepsy monitoring unit, and how should you prepare?

What is an epilepsy monitoring unit?

An epilepsy monitoring unit is normally an area in a hospital or epilepsy center where there are private rooms fitted out with technology that is used to understand people’s epilepsy. You will normally stay there for a few days and have your brain activity monitored 24 hours per day. There are both adult and pediatric epilepsy monitoring units. They are often found in level 4 epilepsy centers, which provide the most advanced care. 

But why go to an EMU? Epileptic seizures don't usually occur while there is a doctor present, so it can be hard for them to really understand what is happening to you. In an epilepsy monitoring unit, you will be observed by doctors 24 hours a day. This means they are more likely to be able to see a seizure when it happens.

The most common technology used in epilepsy monitoring units is video EEG. Electrodes are attached to your head which can record patterns of electrical activity in your brain. The video EEG will monitor brain activities over several days, which makes it more likely that it will ‘pick up’ on a seizure.

You might get sent to an epilepsy monitoring unit for various reasons:

  • Sometimes it is for initial epilepsy diagnosis. If it’s unclear whether or not your seizures are actually caused by epilepsy, staying at an EMU can be helpful.  
  • Other times, doctors send patients to an EMU to see if surgery is right for them, or if having a device like a VNS or DBS implanted will help them.
  • EMU’s might also be helpful if your seizures are not being controlled by your current anti-epilepsy medicine. The use of video EEG might help identify what kind of seizures you’re having and help the doctors choose a more effective medicine. 

Learn more: What’s an EEG?

What happens at an epilepsy monitoring unit?

Before your stay at the EMU, you will normally have at least a couple of meetings with staff and they will tell you what to expect. Normally the process goes something like this:

  • Once you arrive, you will talk to the doctor about what's going to happen
  • The doctor may advise you to either stop taking the anti epilepsy medication you are on, or reduce the levels
  • The technician will glue several electrodes to your head - this takes about half an hour
  • These electrodes are attached to a monitoring machine that will record activity in your brain
  • You will normally have to stay in the epilepsy monitoring unit for at least one day - although it often requires between three and seven days where you will be continually monitored
  • Throughout your time there, doctors will inform you of what is happening
  • You will be given food and drink 
  • If you have any doubts or discomfort during your stay, speak to the doctor
  • If you are a child, a parent or carer will need to stay with you the whole time
  • Once monitoring is complete, the technician will remove the electrodes from your head - this can be a little uncomfortable
  • You may have to stay in hospital for a couple more days while doctors adjust your medication to your usual levels

How to prepare for a visit to an epilepsy monitoring unit

Before staying at an epilepsy center near you, someone at the EMU will advise you on how to prepare. Usually, this will involve things like:

  • Shampooing your hair the night before
  • Bringing button up or zip fronted tops (avoid t-shirts and pullovers because you will be wearing an EEG on your head)
  • Spending a few days at an epilepsy monitoring unit can get boring! So, bring along any books, toys, video games, board games and music and other things to keep you occupied
  • Be prepared for different kinds of seizures. Especially if you are reducing the amount of anti epilepsy medication you take, you may experience more frequent or longer seizures
  • Remember to talk to the staff if you're feeling uncomfortable
  • Bring along a list of all your medication and information about any other health problems you might have

After your stay at an epilepsy monitoring unit

After you have finished with your visit to the EMU, the epileptologists at the epilepsy center will analyze the information they have collected and be back in touch with you to tell you more.

If you have any doubts about your visit to the epilepsy monitoring unit, speak to your doctor and the staff at the epilepsy center - they will be able to answer all your questions.