Tsunami Seizures; 2011 Disaster Caused Neurological Nightmare For Japanese Survivors

on January 21, 2013 10:35 AM EST

Tsunami Seizure
A rise in seizures following Japan's 2011 tsunami gave researchers reason to examine the country's emergency medical services. (Photo: Reuters)

A study in the medical journal Epilepsia has determined that stress resulting from the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan also took a neurological toll on many survivors. Tsunami seizures rose sharply in the weeks following the disaster, with 13 tsunami seizures reported at Kesennuma City Hospital in the eight weeks after the tsunami compared to only one case in the eight weeks prior to the disaster. That's nearly twice the average of 7.3 seizure patients admitted during the same 16-week period in the three previous years.

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"Stress itself is not a universal risk factor for seizures," said lead author Dr. Ichiyo Shibahara, a staff neurosurgeon at Sendai Medical Center in Japan. "Most of the seizure patients had some sort of neurological disease before the earthquake."

Shibahara said the tsunami seizures were related to "stress associated with life-threatening situations" but that other factors could have contributed to the rise in tsunami seizures such as polluted floodwaters, head injuries and fatigue resulting from disruptive sleep cycles.

Kesennuma City Hospital neurosurgeons typically treat patients with stroke, head trauma and brain tumors, but the researchers found no increases in patients with those conditions in the weeks after the earthquake and tsunami. The tsunami flooded a third of Kesennuma, a city of 73,000 residents, but the hospital stayed open during the disaster. Of the 13 tsunami seizure patients who sought treatment after the disaster, 11 had preexisting brain disorders that included epilepsy, head injuries or stroke. Eight of the tsunami seizure patients were on anti-convulsion medications.

Shibahara noted that of the five seizure patients admitted days after the tsunami, it was "not because of a lack of anticonvulsants, but because of the stress."

Dr. Sunao Kaneko, neuropsychiatry professor at the Hirosaki University Graduate School of Medicine and president of the Japan Epilepsy Society, told Reuters Health that the study of tsunami seizures showcases the need for seizure-prone patients to have access to a nationwide epilepsy treatment and information network.

"The establishment of local epilepsy centers where patients with epilepsy can easily access clinics is crucial," Kaneko said.

Since the 2011 tsunami, Japan has begun work on such a network that currently includes more than 1,000 doctors and provides information for seizure-prone citizens. The tsunami seizure study concluded that greater access to such a network would help patients weather any future natural disasters.

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