Overview

Epilepsy surgery is a procedure that removes an area of your brain where your seizures originate.

Epilepsy surgery works best for people who have seizures that always originate in the same place in their brains. To be considered for epilepsy surgery, you must have tried at least two anti-seizure drugs without success. If two appropriate drugs have failed, it is highly unlikely that any other anti-epileptic drug will help you.

Why it's done

In most cases, epilepsy surgery can reduce — and sometimes even eliminate — your seizure activity. Repeated epileptic seizures can cause:

  • Broken bones or other injuries from falling during a seizure
  • Drowning, if the seizure occurs during a bath or swimming
  • Brain damage from prolonged seizures
  • Sudden death, a rare complication of epilepsy

The type of epilepsy surgery you may have depends on the types of seizures you experience and where they begin in your brain. They include:

  • Removing a portion of the brain. The most common type of epilepsy surgery is the removal of the portion of the brain — usually about the size of a golf ball — that's causing the seizures. This type of surgery — called resective surgery — can remove a lobe, a portion of a lobe or a lesion and is highly successful.
  • Severing connection between hemispheres. Another type of epilepsy surgery, called a corpus callosotomy, severs the network of neural connections between the right and left halves (hemispheres) of the brain.

    This surgery is used primarily in children who have severe seizures that start in one hemisphere and spread to the other side. This can help reduce the severity of seizures.

  • Removing half the brain. The most radical type of epilepsy surgery removes the outer layer of half the brain. Hemispherectomy is used in children who have seizures because of damage to just one half (hemisphere) of the brain. This occurs in a few rare conditions that are present at birth or that appear in early infancy. The chance of a full recovery is best in younger children.

Risks

Your risks may vary, depending on which variety of epilepsy surgery is used and the portion of your brain that's involved:

  • Memory problems. The temporal lobe handles memory and language functions, so surgery on this part of the brain may cause difficulties with remembering, understanding and speaking.
  • Behavioral changes. Surgery to the frontal lobe may affect behavior, including motivation, attention or concentration, as well as impulse control, depression and mood changes.
  • Double vision. Temporary double vision sometimes develops after temporal lobe surgery. Vision problems may also occur with occipital lobe surgery.
  • Reduced visual field. Epilepsy surgery may result in a reduced visual field.

How you prepare

If you're a candidate for epilepsy surgery, your pre-surgical evaluation may include:

  • Baseline electroencephalogram (EEG). In this test, electrodes are placed on the scalp to measure electrical activity produced by the brain.
  • Video EEG. A continuous EEG with video monitoring records your seizures as they occur. Because your seizure medications have to be reduced or temporarily stopped so that seizures will occur, you'll have to be admitted to the hospital for this test. Correlating the changes in your EEG with your body's movements during a seizure helps "pinpoint" the area of your brain in which your seizures are starting.
  • MRI or CT of the head. MRI and CT scans can identify structural problems — such as lesions or scar tissue in the brain — that could be causing seizures.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) and functional MRI. PET and functional MRI scans can monitor the brain's activity and detect abnormalities.
  • Single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT). The scan image varies in color depending on the amount of blood flow in different areas of the brain. Typically, blood flow is higher in the part of the brain where seizures originate. In some cases, doctors combine several types of imaging techniques to help locate the troublesome area of the brain.

What you can expect

During the procedure

To avoid infection, your hair will need to be clipped short over the section of your skull that will be removed during the operation. Often, the neurosurgical team will be able to shave the area in such a way that other parts of your hair will cover up the bald patch after the surgery. Some people want the entire head shaved. Shaving is not done if the surgery is for a child.

You will have a small flexible tube placed within a vein (intravenous access), and your heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen levels will be monitored throughout the surgery. An EEG monitor also may be recording your brain waves during the operation to better localize the part of your brain where your seizures start.

Epilepsy surgery is usually performed during general anesthesia. That means you'll be unconscious during the procedure, which involves making a small opening in your skull to access the brain. In rare circumstances, your surgeon may awaken you during part of the operation to help the team determine which parts of your brain control language and movement.

After surgery the window of bone is replaced and fastened to the remaining skull for healing. Most epilepsy surgeries take at least four hours.

After the procedure

You'll be in a special recovery area to be monitored carefully as you awaken after the anesthesia. You may need to spend the first night after surgery in an intensive care unit. The total hospital stay for most epilepsy surgeries is usually about three or four days.

When you awaken, your head will be swollen and painful. Most people need narcotics for the pain for at least the first few days. An ice pack on your head also may help. Most postoperative swelling and pain resolve within several weeks.

You'll probably not be able to return to work or school for approximately one to three months. You should rest and relax the first few weeks after epilepsy surgery and then gradually escalate your activity.

It's unlikely that you would need intensive rehabilitation as long as the surgery was completed without complications such as stroke, paralysis or loss of speech.

Results

Depending on their underlying cause, some seizures can be resistant to medication, but they're also the most likely to be helped by epilepsy surgery. For example, nearly 90 percent of people who experience temporal lobe seizures see a significant reduction or even a cessation of seizures after epilepsy surgery.

You must continue to take anti-seizure medications after epilepsy surgery, to help improve your chances of remaining seizure-free. Your doctor may be able to wean you off anti-seizure drugs after a year or two.

Clinical trials

Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this disease.

The Mayo Clinic experience and patient stories

Our patients tell us that the quality of their interactions, our attention to detail and the efficiency of their visits mean health care like they've never experienced. See the stories of satisfied Mayo Clinic patients.

  1. Epilepsy Care Makes the World More Peaceful for a Painter

    For years, seizures caused confusion and disorder in Kristin Taheri's daily life. She sought medical care to no avail. Then she turned to Mayo Clinic, where Kristin received the diagnosis she had been seeking, and her care team worked diligently to find a way to stop her seizures. They say a picture paints a thousand [...]

  2. Saving Grace: Finding Hope for a Seizure-Free Future

    After suffering her first epileptic seizure at just 10 days of age, Grace Chan required six separate brain surgeries as surgeons worked to remove the harmful tissue that was causing her seizures. Ten days after giving birth, Christina Chen, M.D., was feeding her newborn daughter, Grace, when the young child's arms and head suddenly began [...]

  3. Novel Approach to Epilepsy Surgery Allows a Young Woman to Enjoy Life Again

    Five weeks before she was born, Marissa B. had a stroke in utero. When her mother went into labor, Marissa had another stroke. Diagnosed with epilepsy at birth, Marissa spent her first month of life in the neonatal intensive care unit. ?When she was six months old, they did a brain MRI,? Marissa?s mom, Lisa, [...]

  4. After 20 Years of Seizures, Erica Laney Enjoys Life Following Epilepsy Surgery

    For much of her adolescent and adult life, Erica Laney, 31, had frequent petit mal seizures. Less often, she had grand mal seizures that led to loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. The cause of the seizures was abnormal electrical activity throughout her brain. ?The seizures started when I was 11 years old. I [...]

  5. Surgery to Get Rid of Seizures Gives Brad Lewis New Freedom

    For 14 years, Brad Lewis never knew quite what to expect when he woke up in the morning. A rare genetic disorder, tuberous sclerosis, caused a variety of health problems. But the one that disrupted his life the most was epilepsy. At one point, Brad was having as many as 80 seizures a day. ?Seizures [...]

Aug. 28, 2015
References
  1. Surgery. Epilepsy Foundation. http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/treating-seizures-and-epilepsy/surgery. Accessed July 17, 2015.
  2. Schacter SC. Overview of the management of epilepsy in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed July 21, 2015.
  3. The epilepsies and seizures: Hope through research. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/epilepsy/detail_epilepsy.htm. Accessed July 17, 2015.
  4. Brunicardi FC, et al., eds. Schwartz's Principles of Surgery. 10th ed. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Education; 2015. http://www.accessmedicine.com. Accessed July 21, 2015.
  5. Ryvlin P, et al. Epilepsy surgery in children and adults. The Lancet Neurology. 2014;13:1114.
  6. Cascino GD (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 10, 2015.

Epilepsy surgery