About one third of severe alcoholics are susceptible to alcohol withdrawal seizures. These terrifying events result from massive alterations in neurotransmitter levels and brain receptor sites caused by prolonged alcohol exposure.
In this article, we will discuss the biochemical causes of alcohol withdrawal seizures. We will then review some common symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal, including seizures, and I will let you in on an experience I once had with DT’s.
Finally, we will cover available treatments and medications, and end with a game plan of sorts for the severe alcoholic who wants to change his or her life.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures?
The most important neurotransmitters involved in alcohol withdrawal seizures are GABA and glutamate. GABA is the brain’s primary calming neurotransmitter. It must exist in balance with glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter that increases electrical activity in the brain.
Alcohol stimulates GABA receptors, and chronic alcohol consumption causes the brain to decrease the amount of GABA it naturally produces. Moreover, it reduces (or “downregulates”) the number of receptors that GABA binds to.
Conversely, chronic drinking causes the brain to increase glutamate levels (and “upregulate” receptor sites) to compensate for alcohol’s suppression of glutamate. This leads to more electrical activity in the brain.
Let me put this in plain English. If you are an alcoholic, your brain has learned to rely on alcohol for a calming effect instead of its own natural GABA, and ramped up electrical activity to keep you conscious while you hammer drinks.
Therefore, when you stop drinking suddenly, your brain freaks out. It has adapted to the presence of alcohol to keep you alive, and reverting to its former state cannot be achieved overnight. Your calming chemical is depleted and electrical activity goes through the roof.
In severe cases, this situation can result in seizures.
If you are mildly or even moderately dependent on alcohol, you are not likely to experience seizures. Alcohol withdrawal seizures tend to occur only in cases of severe alcohol addiction.
Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, listed from relatively minor to severe, include:
- A general sense of unease
- Increased blood pressure
- Sense of impending doom
- Hypersensitive reflex responses
- High fever
- Full body twitching
- Brain zaps
- Auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations
- Delirium Tremens (DT’s) – confusion, hallucinations, and seizures that can last up to a week (untreated)
If you are dependent on alcohol and have not experienced seizures, don’t consider yourself lucky just yet.
Thanks to a brain phenomenon called kindling, you can increase your probability of experiencing alcohol withdrawal seizures by continuing to drink – and, more precisely, by experiencing repeated episodes of alcohol withdrawal.
In animal models, repeated episodes of alcohol withdrawal lead to an increase in the frequency, duration and severity of seizures. Alcohol withdrawal seizures can be fatal, but modern medications like benzodiazepines have made alcohol detox much safer than in the past.
Generalized tonic-clonic seizures, involving uncontrollable jerking movements, are the most common of seizures that occur with severe alcohol withdrawal. These are often referred to as Grand mal seizures.
The tonic phase of a grand mal seizure involves around 20 seconds of unconsciousness and involuntary muscle spasms. This leads into the clonic phase, which involves convulsions that can repeat for a few minutes.
I knew an accomplished executive who had a grand mal seizure while drinking in a bar. He was severely addicted to alcohol, and on this occasion he did not drink enough to maintain temporary GABA/glutamate stability. When he had the seizure, he fell off of his barstool, hit his head on the floor, and convulsed for over a minute.
If you or someone you know is experiencing alcohol withdrawal seizures, it’s important to get to a doctor immediately. Damage to the brain and other organs can occur during these seizures.
For people who are predisposed to them, alcohol withdrawal seizures typically begin 1-3 days after alcohol cessation. (source) After the 72 hour mark, alcohol withdrawal seizures are possible but relatively rare. (source)
One of the primary symptoms of DT’s is confusion. This means that it can be quite difficult to self-diagnose these symptoms. However, people who experience alcohol withdrawal seizures often report sensing an “aura” beforehand – a subjective sensation or emotion that occurs just before the seizure.
I am not sure whether I had any alcohol withdrawal seizures, but I definitely experienced DT’s.
I recall once particular withdrawal episode, a few months before I quit drinking, in which I unwisely decided to quit cold turkey after a massive week long binge. At the time, I knew nothing about anything I write about on this website.
Come on Chris, man up and get it together – you’ve got to go in for work on Monday. Tough it out.
After spending an entire day paralyzed by confusion and anhedonia on my couch, I decided to transfer to my bed. Since it had been about 24 hours since I had drank any alcohol, I knew I would not sleep.
But I had no idea that my perception of reality was about to become totally skewed:
- I broke into a cold sweat
- I began involuntarily twitching
- I heard muttering, cackling, and screaming that I knew could not be real
- I saw dark figures leaping between doorways
- I felt brain zaps
- I felt violent sensations on the surface of my skin
- I felt a sense of impending of doom
After recounting this experience to a doctor years later, I was told that if I had not had a seizure and simply blacked out, that I had experienced DT’s – and was probably about an inch away from experiencing a seizure.
To this day, that evening was the most bizarre and terrifying experience I have ever had. I created Fit Recovery in part because there are too many dry medical accounts of alcohol withdrawal on the Internet, written by people who have never experienced what they are writing about.
When I had DT’s, what I should have done was see a doctor immediately and at the very least, begin a tapered regimen of benzodiazepines. Modern medicine can prevent DT’s and seizures! Don’t suffer needlessly.
There are also effective strategies to kill alcohol addiction for good!
Treatment & Medications
If a person is experiencing severe alcohol withdrawal and no medical treatment is available, sometimes the only immediate solution is to drink just enough alcohol to ease symptoms. Of course, this is a temporary solution that kicks the can down the road. But it is better than the risking alcohol withdrawal seizures.
With that said, I will repeat what I said earlier…
If you’re experiencing alcohol withdrawal seizures, get to the ER immediately.
Most hospitals in America will use benzodiazepines to prevent or reduce symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal. This process can take up to a week, and doses will be determined by a doctor based on individual characteristics.
You can read more about the use of benzodiazepines for alcohol withdrawal in these articles:
- Ativan For Alcohol Withdrawal
- Librium For Alcohol Withdrawal
- Klonopin For Alcohol Withdrawal
- Valium For Alcohol Withdrawal
- Xanax For Alcohol Withdrawal
Magnesium is also known to reduce the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. (source) A select few treatment centers use megadoses of magnesium, along with other nutrients like vitamin C, to detoxify the body and reduce the likelihood of alcohol withdrawal seizures.
Conquering Alcohol Addiction
After you detox, conquering alcoholism should be your number one priority for a long time to come! Due to kindling, your likelihood of experiencing seizures if you drink again rises – your slate is not wiped clean.
Fortunately for you, it’s possible to leave alcohol addiction – and alcohol withdrawal seizures – in the past.
You can start by proactively repairing your body and brain.
A great way to get started is to take Calm Support, which will begin the process of repair that your depleted body so desperately needs.
If you take the time to bookmark them, the following articles will prove very useful for you:
- Top 20 Supplements For Detox And Recovery
- Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline – And Body Repair After Quitting Drinking
- Top 10 Remedies For Sleep After Quitting Alcohol
- Top 10 Ways Exercise Rewires Your Brain
- 7 Ways Ben Affleck Could Transcend Alcohol Addiction
There are MANY more enlightening articles on Fit Recovery, so I suggest subscribing to my email list at the bottom of this article and staying posted for more!
In this day and age, alcohol withdrawal seizures are totally unnecessary. They can and should be prevented with proper medical care. Ideally, it’s best to prevent them by tackling alcohol problems long before they reach this level!
Many people who write to me each day have been able to quit drinking long before experiencing DT’s or alcohol withdrawal seizures. I’m confident that the information at your disposal, on Fit Recovery, can help to save your life.
With enough internal resolve, anyone can conquer alcohol addiction forever.
If you have any questions about alcohol withdrawal seizures, please leave them in the comment box below.