In medieval times, sufferers were thought to be possessed by evil spirits which had to be expelled by any means. The accepted methods used at the time included: drilling a hole in the skull of the patient, flagellation, applying leeches to the face, and practising exorcism to drive the demons out of the brain.
These efforts probably achieved very little, except making the patients even more miserable, but this is how modern medicine began. In fact, for 99.9% of our 150,000 years of human history, what we now call alternative medicine was the only form of treatment available. Even at the turn of the 20th century, separating quackery from reputable medicine was often difficult. While the majority of tonics and concoctions sold for epilepsy by the so called 'specialists' were often just useless, at the same time accredited medical practitioners were using methods such as electrotherapy, surgical removal of ovaries and many powerful drugs, which were not only ineffective but often very dangerous to the sufferers.
Understandably, there is still a lot of suspicion today towards alternative forms of treatments, but Western medicine often struggles with many chronic disorders, including diabetes, cancer and mental illnesses.
In the case of epilepsy, treatment through medications is limited in what it can accomplish. One needs to prevent injury during seizures, deal with the social stigma attached to the disorder, and improve the personal and professional outcome for the patient. As the frequency of attacks increases in the elderly, up to 35% of patients on anti-epileptic medications still experience occasional seizures, besides the many unpleasant side effects of the drugs. Despite all these shortcomings, getting the medical profession worldwide to accept the role of alternative therapies in the treatment of epilepsy has been an arduous task.
But it is now gradually changing. For example, the American Epilepsy Foundation advises that, "Alternative therapies are acceptable, as long as the patient continues with the traditional therapies, and the different forms of therapies do not conflict." It is an encouraging stance, considering that there are many ways in which alternative forms of treatments can be beneficial. For example, adults with epilepsy often experience an increase in the frequency and severity of seizures during periods of stress. The stressors that cause an overload on the epileptic brain can affect each individual in a different way. One person will suffer from anxiety to a social situation, while others will be debilitated by a lack of sleep, or extremes of temperature, noise, light, or even powerful smells. Taking additional medication to relieve stress or anxiety brings its own additional side effects and doesn't address the cause of the problem.
Being an epileptic is by itself a major source of stress. There is the constant uncertainty of not knowing when the next episode will occur. One is frequently subject to limitations in education and employment opportunities, and there is a powerful social stigma attached to the disease. Even normal interactions with well meaning friends, workmates or family members often transform once they witness an epileptic seizure.
This is where alternative methods of treatments have their place. For example, relaxation techniques can induce powerful changes in the sufferers, although the ability to relax when under stress is a skill that doesn't come easily to most of us. Several research studies have been conducted in India on the effects of meditation with epileptic patients. In one of them, a group of 21 patients who had drug resistant seizures were selected and placed in a meditation program which lasted for six months. For 20 minutes every day, the participants were instructed to repeat a selected word while sitting in a comfortable position. The brain wave levels of the participants were recorded with an EEG device on a regular basis.
This simple meditation method produced some surprising results. Throughout the meditation sessions, the level of alpha (relaxation), beta (concentration) and theta (drowsiness) brain waves fluctuated constantly. This was an indication that the central nervous system of each participant was constantly redirecting its neural pathways throughout the practice. At the end of the program, the brain analysis of the participants showed a progressive increase in the alpha brain wave activities which are indicative of deep relaxation. Since epileptic patients suffer from a low level of these brain waves, these neural changes resulted in a significant reduction in the frequency of seizures in the participants which lasted for several months afterward. The neurologists, who had for decades been trying to control the erratic changes in the brain of their epileptic patients, were very encouraged by these findings. This is only one of many natural therapies which are now being considered by the medical profession.
We will continue this topic in the next issue of NOVA Magazine by examining how other alternative practices, including aromatherapy, Chinese medicine and music therapy can really transform the lives of epileptic sufferers.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.(TCM), BHSc.(Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com