Understanding Epilepsy and Its Surgical Treatment Options

Understanding Epilepsy and Its Surgical Treatment Options
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Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It can be a frightening and confusing condition, both for those who experience seizures and their loved ones. However, advancements in medical science have provided hope for individuals living with epilepsy through various treatment options, including surgery. 

In this article, we will explore what epilepsy is, its possible causes, when surgery may become an option and the different surgical treatments available to help manage the condition.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder characterized by recurrent, unprovoked seizures. Seizures are abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the brain that can lead to a wide range of symptoms, such as loss of consciousness, convulsions, altered behavior and unusual sensations. 

It's important to note that not all seizures are related to epilepsy; they can be caused by various other factors, including fever, low blood sugar or head injuries.

Epilepsy affects people of all ages, from children to seniors, and its severity varies from person to person. For many, epilepsy can be well-managed with medication or other non-surgical treatments. However, some individuals may find that their seizures are not adequately controlled by medication alone, leading them to consider surgical options.

What causes epilepsy?

Understanding the potential causes of epilepsy can help shed light on why some individuals may require surgery to manage their condition. Epilepsy can result from a variety of factors, including:

  • Genetic factors: Some people have a genetic predisposition to epilepsy, meaning they may inherit a higher risk of developing the condition from their family.

  • Brain injury: Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), such as those sustained in car accidents or falls, may lead to epilepsy. Even mild head injuries may sometimes trigger seizures.

  • Brain abnormalities: Structural anomalies or abnormalities in the brain, like tumors, cysts or malformations, may disrupt normal brain activity and cause epilepsy.

  • Infections: Certain infections, like meningitis, encephalitis or brain abscesses, may lead to epilepsy if they damage brain tissue.

  • Developmental disorders: Some developmental conditions, like autism or neurofibromatosis, are associated with a higher risk of epilepsy.

  • Stroke: Strokes can cause damage to brain tissue and increase the likelihood of developing epilepsy.

When epilepsy surgery may be an option

Epilepsy surgery is typically considered when an individual's seizures are not effectively controlled by medication and the seizures significantly impact quality of life. Before surgery is recommended, a thorough evaluation is conducted to determine whether the patient is a suitable candidate. The following factors are taken into consideration:

  • Frequency and severity of seizures: The number and severity of seizures play a significant role in recommending surgery.

  • Epilepsy type: The type of epilepsy and the specific part of the brain where seizures originate influence the surgical approach.

  • Failed medication management: If anti-seizure medications have been tried but are ineffective or cause intolerable side effects, surgery may be considered.

  • Quality of life: A patient's overall quality of life, including their ability to work, drive and engage in daily activities, is crucial in the decision-making process.

What epilepsy surgeries are available as treatments?

Several surgical procedures are available to manage epilepsy, and the choice of procedure depends on the individual's specific condition and needs. 

Here are some of the most common surgical treatments:

Focal cortical resection

This procedure removes a portion of the brain typically responsible for generating seizures. It’s often used when seizures originate from a specific, identifiable brain area. This method can target any lobe of the brain. It can also treat seizures involving two lobes.

Laser ablation surgery

Neurosurgeons use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to guide the insertion of a thin laser that destroys brain lesions responsible for epilepsy and uncontrolled seizures. Because the surgery allows for small incisions, patients will recover faster compared to open brain surgery.

Corpus callosotomy

In this surgery, the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two brain hemispheres, is severed to prevent seizures from spreading between the hemispheres.


This procedure is recommended for patients with very severe epilepsy caused by one hemisphere of the brain that is markedly malformed or injured. It disconnects the parts of the brain causing the seizures. It can resolve seizures in up to 80% of patients.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS)

VNS is a less invasive option that involves implanting a device that stimulates the vagus nerve, helping to reduce the frequency and severity of seizures.

Responsive neurostimulation (RNS)

RNS is a newer surgical option that involves the implantation of a neurostimulator in the brain to detect and respond to abnormal electrical activity, preventing seizures.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS)

This technology involves placing electrodes in a specific part of the deep brain and sending scheduled electrical signals to stop seizure episodes. This device may be an option for people whose seizures come from many parts of the brain or in whom respective epilepsy surgery is not an option.

What to consider

It’s important to note that epilepsy surgeries, like any medical procedure, come with risks, and the decision to undergo surgery should be carefully considered in consultation with a healthcare team. In many cases, surgery can lead to significant improvements in seizure control and overall quality of life for those living with epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a challenging neurological condition, but advances in medical science, like those developed at places like Duke Health, have provided various treatment options, including surgery, to help those who do not respond well to medication.

Understanding the causes of epilepsy, the situations in which surgery may be considered and the available surgical treatments can provide hope and empowerment for individuals living with this condition. It’s essential for patients and their families to work closely with healthcare professionals to determine the most appropriate course of action and improve their quality of life.

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