Our hearts and our brains are very closely connected. Whether it’s how our bodies respond to exercise or the way we calm ourselves down, these two vital organs are continually communicating. It’s therefore not surprising that when there are problems in one of these organs, this can cause issues in the other.
Multiple studies have shown that there are heart problems that cause seizures (or seizure-like events). At the same time, there’s growing evidence that epilepsy can also affect the heart’s health too. Let’s learn more about this link.
What is a seizure?
For people with epilepsy, a seizure is when there is a sudden surge in electrical activity in the brain. Although heart problems can cause symptoms that look like seizures - losing consciousness, falling over, twitching and shaking - these are not technically epileptic seizures. That doesn’t mean they’re not ‘serious’ - a medical professional should investigate them.
Heart problems that cause seizures
Over the years, doctors and researchers have found that many different heart conditions can cause seizure-like events.
Here are some heart problems that cause seizures:
- Cardiac arrhythmia: This is when the heart beats too fast, too slow, or irregularly. It can make people faint. It might also mean their brains don’t get enough oxygen, so they may shake or seem to have seizures.
There are many different heart conditions that can cause arrhythmias, including hypertension, valve diseases and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
- Long QT syndrome: This is a rare and potentially fatal heart problem which causes very irregular heartbeats. Fainting and seizures are common symptoms of this condition. As with arrhythmias, it’s believed that when the heart beats in a disordered way, the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, so people faint.
- Ischemia: This is when blood flow is restricted so not enough oxygen gets to the body. Cardiac ischemia (‘cardiac’ means related to the heart) is when the heart cannot pump blood around the body so well. Again, this can cause a lack of oxygen in the brain, and lead to fainting.
- Asystole (or ‘flatline’): This is when the heart stops beating and all electrical and mechanical activity pauses. It causes fainting and a loss of consciousness, and may cause epileptic seizure activity in the brain.
The dangers of misdiagnosis
Several studies have found that people who have seizure-like events are often misdiagnosed with epilepsy - but in fact have other underlying health problems. Given how serious any heart problem is, it’s always worth getting a second opinion if epilepsy treatments don’t seem to be solving the seizures.
Epilepsy can cause heart problems
For many people with epilepsy, seizures are often accompanied by a rapid increase in their heart rate and rhythm. Seizures may also increase levels of stress hormones in the body, and a shortage of oxygen. This might not be a problem in the short term, but over many years it can cause damage.
The kind of damage caused by having many seizures has led some scientists to believe we should talk about the ‘epileptic heart’ as a specific condition.
Research seems to show that if people have uncontrolled epilepsy, they are more likely to:
- Have signs of physical damage to the heart
- Suffer heart attacks
- Have various heart diseases
These are very concerning findings, and it underscores just how important it is to find solutions that help people manage uncontrolled seizures. The positive news is that there are certain medical devices that appear to help. In particular, vagus nerve stimulation (a bit like a pacemaker which sits under the skin in your upper chest) appears to help with both seizure management and heart arrhythmia.
Head and heart
There are many ways that our hearts and brains interact with one another, and it’s helpful to be aware of heart problems that cause seizures, and the ways epilepsy affects heart health. If you have any doubts or uncertainty about the underlying causes of your seizures (or seizure-like events), speak to your doctor and get tested. With the right treatment, lifestyle changes and support, many heart and brain problems can be managed or even cured.