Diabetic Seizure: What Happens, Why, and What to Do
Read on to learn more about diabetic seizures, their causes, symptoms, and prevention. This article also discusses what happens to your body during a diabetic seizure and what to do when you experience one.
Untreated hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) can affect the nervous system, leading to neurological symptoms such as epileptic seizures. People with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) can also experience seizures. However, this is rare and not as common as doctors and other medical experts once thought.
Aside from hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia, some hypotheses suggest that other factors can contribute to diabetic seizures, including:
- local brain damage
- immune system abnormalities
- metabolic factors
- microvascular brain lesions
- gene mutations
Severe hypoglycemia is one of the causes of seizures in people with diabetes. This commonly occurs following excess administration of insulin.
Because the brain needs glucose to work properly, insufficient glucose in the blood will impair its ability to function. Severe or chronic hypoglycemia can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.
Two types of hyperglycemia can cause diabetic seizures:
- Ketotic hyperglycemia: Ketotic hyperglycemia, also called diabetic ketoacidosis, is a severe complication of diabetes that occurs when the body produces excess ketones. It is common in people with type 1 diabetes. When there is insufficient insulin in the body, it cannot produce enough insulin to keep glucose levels at a typical level. Instead of entering the cells, the glucose remains in the bloodstream. The body cannot utilize glucose in the blood for energy, so it starts burning fats, releasing ketones into the blood. Accumulation of ketones in the blood turns the blood acidic and poisonous. This also increases the risk of seizures.
- Non-ketotic hyperglycemia (NKH): Non-ketotic hyperglycemia is also called hyperosmolar hyperglycemic syndrome (HHS). It is common in people with type 2 diabetes, and its characteristics include extremely high glucose levels with or without the presence of ketones. In this case, the kidneys try to regulate blood glucose by allowing extra glucose to leave the body via urine. However, this results in the body losing water while retaining high concentrations of salt, glucose, and other substances. Although NKH is clinically rare, it significantly affects neurological outcomes, and its initial symptoms are seizures.
If ketones are present in NKH, they are minimal. This differentiates it from ketotic hyperglycemia, which involves high ketone levels.
Several symptoms of seizures might occur before and during the seizure itself.
Before the seizure
Signs and symptoms of seizures range from mild to severe. Symptoms you may experience before the seizure takes place include:
- temporary confusion
- loss of consciousness
- uncontrollable jerking of the arms and legs
- emotional or cognitive symptoms, such as anxiety and fear
- vision changes
During the seizure
- uncontrollable muscle spasms
- loss of consciousness and confusion
- teeth clenching
- tongue biting
- rapid eye movements
- loss of bowel or bladder control
What happens to your body?
Significant changes in blood sugar, whether they become extremely high or extremely low, can affect the excitability of nerve cells, increasing the risk of seizures.
Seizures happen due to chemical changes that affect how nerve cells interact with each other, causing sudden electrical activity in the brain. All types of seizures share similar symptoms and often follow the same pattern.
Seeing someone you are with experiencing a seizure can be a stressful experience. However, it is important not to panic. To help the person go through the seizure episode, take the following steps:
- Remove objects around them that might cause injury.
- Loosen any tight clothing that might restrict their breathing.
- Lay them on their side in a recovery position to help them breathe easily and to keep their airways clear.
- Do not put anything into their mouth.
When to call 911
Call 911 if the person:
- has not had a seizure before
- has hurt themselves
- has multiple seizures, one after the other
- has difficulty breathing or walking afterward
- is in water
- has been having the seizure longer than 5 minutes
- has diabetes, heart disease, or is pregnant
The period following a seizure is called the postictal period. People’s experiences during this period vary depending on the severity and length of the seizure. However, most people may not recall what just happened.
Many people may also feel sleepy and tired and have body aches and headaches after a diabetic seizure.
It is advisable to seek medical attention after a diabetic seizure.
People with diabetes need to pay attention to their bodies and work with their healthcare team to ensure their blood glucose level is always within the typical range. Healthcare professionals can help you to understand how to manage low or high blood sugar levels to avoid accidental overcorrection of blood sugar levels.
Things you can do to prevent diabetic seizures include:
- monitoring your blood sugar levels regularly
- taking your medications as prescribed
- injecting the right amount of insulin
- limiting alcohol consumption
- eating nutritious, balanced meals that will not cause your blood glucose level to spike
- eating at intervals to maintain sugar levels
- exercising regularly
According to an older 2013 study, about 25% of people with diabetes will experience different types of seizures. More recent studies also indicate that type 1 and 2 diabetes and severe hypoglycemia are independent risk factors for epilepsy, a neurological condition that causes recurrent seizures.
There is currently no cure for diabetes. However, with lifestyle and dietary management and following your doctor’s instructions, you can keep your blood sugar level within the typical range and reduce the risk of complications, such as a diabetic seizure.