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Specialised diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy at dedicated unit in Alberton

Epilepsy monitoring unit aims to improve quality of life for people with epilepsy

Epilepsy, in its various forms, is believed to affect as many as 55 million people worldwide, and approximately one percent of South Africans. There are many different types of epilepsy, and in some cases this complex condition can be difficult to accurately diagnose.

A specialised epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU) established at Netcare Mulbarton Hospital in Alberton, not only assists patients with an accurate diagnosis but also in identifying the most appropriate treatment plan for managing their condition.

Dr Vanmala Naidoo, a neurologist who practises at the Netcare Mulbarton Hospital EMU, says: “Epilepsy is a complex set of conditions, and in some cases may be due to secondary causes such as meningitis or a head injury. Diagnosis is not always simple, as there are other conditions that may present similarly to certain types of epilepsy, or vice versa. Observation and assessment at the EMU provides important information that we use to make a diagnosis and treat the patient effectively.”

“While some epileptics experience convulsive, or grand mal seizures, characterised by the body stiffening accompanied by uncontrolled muscle jerking, other types of epilepsy may involve atonic seizures where the person briefly loses control of their muscles and collapses, or absence seizures where the person may be perceived to be ‘staring’ into the middle distance for up to 10 seconds. Certain types of seizures can be extremely subtle, and the person experiencing them may not necessarily even be aware of the seizure.”

A seizure is defined as a surge in the electrical impulses of the brain, causing a number of possible symptoms depending on which area of the brain is affected. Dr Naidoo points out that, contrary to common belief, seizures are not necessarily only attributable to epilepsy but may be attributable to other factors including stress and certain infections.

“In some cases people are unaware that they are having seizures, and may experience symptoms that they wouldn’t associate with epilepsy, such as chronic headaches or migraines, memory loss, sleep disturbances and fatigue,” she says.

She explains that some patients may initially be investigated for conditions including mood or behavioural disorders or certain kinds of cognitive impairment including dementia, when in fact they are living with undiagnosed – and therefore untreated and uncontrolled – epilepsy.

“Untreated or inadequately managed epilepsy not only impacts the person’s quality of life, in extreme cases it may be detrimental as it can lead to brain injury, disability and in rare cases may even be fatal. Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP) is far less likely to occur in people who have been properly diagnosed and are professionally assisted to manage their condition through appropriate treatment.

“As seizures often occur at night while people are sleeping, this is an important time to monitor brain activity and physical responses in order to discover signs of epilepsy and to identify what type of seizures the patient may be experiencing and where in the brain the seizures originate.

“We make use of electroencephalogram [EEG] to monitor and record electrical impulses in the brain, and this information indicates where there are any abnormalities and, in the case of diagnosed epileptics for example, the EEG assists us in tailoring their treatment accordingly. EEG monitoring assists us to identify how often the person has seizures, even those types of seizures that might otherwise be difficult to notice,” Dr Naidoo notes.
The unit is operated by a team that includes three neurologists, neurophysiologists, a European-certified sleep therapist, technicians, trained nursing staff, as well as other healthcare practitioners.
“The multi-disciplinary expertise within our team means that we are able to assess individuals holistically and provide each of them with comprehensive and personalised treatment. Our specially trained nursing staff are experienced in the care of neurological patients and are kind and compassionate,” Dr Naidoo says.

The EMU at Netcare Mulbarton Hospital is equipped to comfortably accommodate patients, who typically spend 24 to 72 hours in the unit. Patients may bring laptops, books or craft materials to help them pass the time.

“Each patient is provided with detailed feedback after the monitoring, where we explain the findings from the EEG and our analysis of their sleep cycle. We discuss the proposed treatment plan to ensure there is no uncertainty, and then after a few weeks we follow-up with the patient to see how they are responding to the treatment.”

The general manager of Netcare Mulbarton Hospital, Nellie Koen, says that the EMU is proving an important addition to the healthcare services available at the hospital.

“The epilepsy monitoring unit is helping to improve quality of life for many patients. In some cases, the individuals are able to get a definitive diagnosis for the first time, thanks to the expertise of the EMU team. We hope that with greater public awareness about epilepsy, more people in need will be assisted to safely manage their condition and improve their quality of life,” Koen concludes.
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