Seizures are bursts of abnormal electrical activity between brain cells. A person having a seizure may show a range of effects, from barely noticeable symptoms to uncontrollable shaking. Anti-epileptic drugs are usually successful at treating seizures and epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that causes recurrent seizures of different types. In the United States, there are at least 28 anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) that treat seizures and epilepsy.

This article explores the various types of anti-seizure medications and their possible side effects. It also looks at the causes of seizures and alternative treatment options.

Healthcare professional talking with someone about medications for seizures.Share on Pinterest
Shannon Fagan/Getty Images

For most people with epilepsy, anti-seizure medications, also known as anti-convulsants, can successfully control seizures. These AEDs do not cure epilepsy. Instead, they stop seizures from happening.

How they work in the brain

AEDs work in different ways to prevent seizures. Usually, they reduce excessive electrical activity in the brain that can lead to seizures.

Other AEDs may affect how neurons transmit chemical messages to one another via neurotransmitter molecules. Researchers do not fully understand how some AEDs work.

Narrow vs. broad spectrum

AEDs fall into two broad categories.

Narrow-spectrum AEDs usually work more effectively for a specific type of seizure, such as focal seizures.

Broad-spectrum AEDs have some level of effectiveness for a variety of seizures. For this reason, they suit people who experience more than one type of seizure. People may need to try several types of medication before they find one that works for them.

People commonly use the following narrow- and broad-spectrum AEDs to treat epilepsy and seizures:

Narrow-spectrum AEDs

  • Carbamazepine: Doctors use this drug widely in both children and adults to treat focal or partial seizures, generalized tonic-clonic seizures, and mixed seizure types.
  • Ethosuximide: Doctors use this drug to treat absence seizures, and it is highly effective in children who have childhood absence epilepsy.

Broad-spectrum AEDs

  • Lamotrigine: This drug treats temporal lobe epilepsy, refractory seizures, juvenile myoclonic epilepsy, and more.
  • Levetiracetam: Doctors commonly use this drug alongside other seizure medicines in all age groups.
  • Topiramate: Also available in an extended-release form, this drug treats partial, focal aware, and tonic-clonic seizures.
  • Valproic acid: This drug helps manage bipolar disorder, migraine headaches, and various forms of epilepsy. People who may become pregnant should not use this medication, because it can cause severe congenital disabilities.

Seizure medications can cause side effects in some people. Most of the time, doctors initially prescribe drugs at a low dosage and gradually increase the dosage to ensure a person can tolerate it.

If an individual experiences side effects, a doctor may treat this by adjusting or dividing the dosage.

Side effects happen more frequently if a person combines their AED with different AEDs or other medications.

Possible side effects vary between the different medications, but they can include the following:

Less common side effects include:

Unpredictable and rare side effects include:

Any individual taking AEDs who experiences side effects should consult their doctor but continue to take their medication until a healthcare professional advises them otherwise.

A seizure is a surge of electrical activity in the brain that can affect how a person acts or feels for a brief time.

Seizures can be minor and hardly noticeable, but they can also be a significant, disabling event. If a person experiences two or more unprovoked seizures, they may receive a diagnosis of the neurological condition epilepsy.

Various factors can cause seizures, and these can depend on a person’s age. For around half of people with epilepsy, doctors never determine the cause.

Causes may include:

  • Brain infections: Although antibiotics can treat the infection, sometimes the scars that remain in the brain can cause seizures in the future.
  • Head injuries: An accident at any age that causes trauma to the head can result in brain injuries and seizures.
  • Autism: There is a connection between epilepsy and autism. Seizures are a common complication of autism spectrum disorder.
  • Tumors and stroke: A stroke most often causes adult-onset seizures. Other causes can include central nervous system infections and brain tumors.
  • Alzheimer’s disease: In people with Alzheimer’s, around 10–22% experience unprovoked seizures.
  • Genetics: Some forms of epilepsy have a genetic link. A person with a family history of epilepsy is more likely to develop the condition. The Epilepsy Foundation note the complex relationship between genes and seizures. For many forms of epilepsy, there is no genetic testing.

AEDs alleviate many people’s epilepsy symptoms. However, for people that do not respond to medication, there are alternative options.

Ketogenic diet

High fat content is the hallmark of the ketogenic diet. It also has low levels of carbohydrates. This extremely restrictive diet has shown promise in treating epilepsy in people of any age.

Learn more about the ketogenic diet here.

Vagus nerve stimulation

This therapy involves implanting a device under the skin of the chest. This sends mild electrical pulses via the vagus nerve to the brain.

Brain surgery

Depending on the type of seizures and where they begin, brain surgery to remove the affected parts may successfully treat seizures.

Individuals may find that complementary therapies boost the effectiveness of their seizure medications. People must check with their doctor before beginning any of these therapies.


Herbal remedies, including kava, valerian, passionflower, and chamomile, may have relaxing and calming effects and a positive impact on seizures.

In contrast, stimulating herbs, such as ginseng and gingko, may worsen seizures.


Nutrients such as vitamin B6, magnesium, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids may reduce seizure frequency. Research also shows that thiamine may help brain function in people with epilepsy.


This technique uses electrical sensors on a person’s skin to indirectly measure the activity of their sympathetic nervous system. A healthcare professional shows a person that activity in real time. This can allow the person to understand their own body better.

Biofeedback has been successful in teaching people to recognize warning signs and act to prevent a full-blown seizure.


The role of acupuncture in treating epilepsy is unclear. Some research has found it ineffective in treating seizures and improving quality of life. In comparison, other scientists present it as a promising therapy.

Medical cannabis

A growing number of people with epilepsy report that using cannabis is beneficial to their condition and, in some cases, results in nearly complete seizure control.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the cannabis-based drug Epidiolex to treat some rare and severe types of epilepsy.

A range of factors, including trauma, infections, and genetics, can cause epilepsy and seizures. Sometimes, there is no identifiable cause.

Usually, anti-epileptic drugs treat seizures and epilepsy successfully. However, side effects can occur with these medications.

Alternative therapies also exist, including brain surgery, implanted devices, special diets, biofeedback, and medical cannabis.

People who have epilepsy or seizures should seek their doctor’s advice if they experience any side effects with their medications and before beginning any complementary therapy.