Complementary therapies such as homeopathy, herbal remedies, massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture and training therapies can help to promote wellbeing and underlying health, as well as reduce stress and may be used alongside any anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) you are taking. It is important not to change or stop your medication without consulting the doctor who treats your epilepsy, because this could increase the number or frequency of your seizures, or cause unwanted side effects.
Some complementary therapies may help improve epilepsy indirectly because they make you feel better generally. If stress is a trigger for your seizures, a therapy that helps you to feel less stressed may help you to have fewer seizures. People respond differently, and some therapies may help reduce seizures for some people, and not others.
Some complementary therapies can increase the risk of seizures, so it is important to know as much as possible about your own epilepsy, and the therapies you are interested in. To help make sure treatments are suitable for you, always use a qualified therapist and tell them about your epilepsy, your seizures, any other conditions you have and any medication that you take.
The therapist may ask for a referral from your GP if they feel the treatment could have a negative effect on your epilepsy. Even if your seizures are not controlled, you should not be denied treatment simply because you have epilepsy.
Some therapists are covered by statutory regulation, such as chiropractors and osteopaths. Some therapies, such as homeopathy, are long-established and have their own professional councils that hold their members to high standards of training, practice and ethics.
Some therapies are less well-established in the UK and have little or no regulation. It is not always easy to work out the qualifications and experience of a complementary therapist as regulation is not as well developed as in other areas of healthcare. This makes it hard to distinguish between an experienced practitioner and someone who has had little training.
You can see whether the complementary therapy you are interested in has a professional body, and if so, you can check their standards and register of members. A personal recommendation of a highly regarded practitioner can be reassuring. But it is also a good idea to do your own research to help you make your choice.
You can search for a local regulated therapist through the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) (opens new window) or Therapy Directory (opens new window).
Massage and aromatherapy
Types of massage include:
- Indian head massage (massage of the head shoulders and arms);
- holistic massage (massage of the whole body);
- Swedish massage (massage from the neck down): and
- shiatsu (using acupressure which is pressure on acupuncture points).
Massage is often used to reduce tension and pain in muscles, help with poor sleep patterns, improve relaxation and reduce stress. All types of massage can be carried out with or without oil, and can involve the use of aromatherapy oils. However, these oils should only be used by a qualified aromatherapist who is trained to know which oils are safe for use in epilepsy.
For more information visit the General Council for Massage Therapies (GCMT) (opens new window) or the Shiatsu Society (opens new window).
What are essential oils and how do they work?
Aromatherapy uses pure essential oils: oils that are extracted from plants. Some oils have a relaxing effect on the body and the brain, for example lavender. Some oils have a stimulating effect on the body and brain, for example bergamot. Oils can be diluted in a ‘base’ oil (a plain oil such as a vegetable or nut oil) and used for massage, or they can be diluted and used in a burner to produce an aroma that is inhaled.
When essential oils are massaged into the skin, the tiny molecules of oil pass through the skin and into the tissues and bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream they travel to the brain where they have an effect. When essential oils are inhaled they go straight to the brain via the lungs.
Many essential oils are freely available to buy, but this does not necessarily mean that they are all safe to use. Ask your doctor, pharmacist or qualified aromatherapist before you use essential oils bought over the counter or on the internet.
Are any essential oils not recommended for use in epilepsy?
Rosemary, fennel, sage, eucalyptus, hyssop, camphor and spike lavender are not recommended as essential oils if you have epilepsy. This is because these essential oils may trigger seizures in some people with epilepsy. For pregnant women there are also a number of other oils to avoid.
Can any essential oils help my epilepsy?
There are a number of essential oils that are known to have a calming and relaxing effect. If someone's seizures are triggered by stress, then using these oils to relax may help to reduce their seizures. Calming oils include: jasmine, ylang ylang, camomile, and lavender (not spike lavender which is not recommended).
Research was carried out at the University of Birmingham’s seizure clinic which involved using essential oils with individuals who had epilepsy. The studies used aromatherapy massage to allow individuals to associate the smell of an essential oil with a state of relaxation. Then, when the person was stressed or felt a seizure was about to start, they could smell the essential oil. This would remind their brain of the relaxing feelings, which aimed to help stop their seizure from happening. Results showed that, with practice, a person may be able to relax by simply smelling the particular oil which could then lead to fewer seizures. From this research, jasmine oil was the most effective, although this may not be the case for everyone with epilepsy.
For more information about aromatherapy contact the Aromatherapy Council (AC) (opens new window).
Reflexology is based on the idea that certain points on the feet and hands (reflex points) relate to parts of the body. The therapist uses pressure on these points to release tension and encourage the body’s natural healing processes. Reflexology can be helpful in reducing stress and making you feel relaxed, and can support wellbeing and underlying health.
For more information about reflexology visit the British Reflexology Association (opens new window).
Relaxing activities such as meditation, visualisation or slow, focused breathing can help reduce stress and so help to reduce seizures for some people.
Meditation can be a very good way of relaxing, releasing you from stress or anxiety and coping with fatigue and mental tiredness. Over time a meditation practice can help to clear the mind and to focus. It can also help with headaches and can promote wellbeing. The benefits of meditation may not be obvious at first, and a beginner can get disheartened. It can be best to start with a very simple meditation technique for just a few minutes a day, and gradually build up.
Be careful about learning meditation and breathing techniques on a casual basis, or starting an intense practice too quickly. Both meditation and deep breathing directly affect electrical activity in the brain and central nervous system, and can be powerful. An experienced instructor who fully understands these techniques can guide you.
If your seizures tend to happen when you are very relaxed, or during sleep, then deeply relaxing activities such as meditation and hypnotherapy may increase your risk of having seizures. For more information about meditation visit the British Meditation Society (opens new window).
Holistic therapies aim to treat the whole person, rather than an individual condition or specific symptoms.
Herbal medicine uses extracts from plants to restore the natural balance of the body and encourage healing. Herbs have been used for thousands of years across the world by many different cultures to treat different health problems, including epilepsy.
There is a lack of evidence for their benefit, but that does not mean that some herbal medicine may not benefit some people. Some plants have been known for centuries for their medicinal properties, but some are poisonous, and ‘natural’ medicines may have adverse side effects in the same way as man-made medications do.
Medicines containing herbs such as schizandra, kava kava and comfrey may increase the number of seizures for some people. Some remedies may contain unlisted ingredients, which could affect someone’s epilepsy or their existing treatment. Also some herbal remedies may affect the way AEDs work, which can reduce the effectiveness of an AED or cause harmful side effects.
St Johns Wort
St Johns Wort is a herbal treatment used for depression and other conditions. The Medicines Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommends that people taking AEDs do not take St Johns Wort because it can affect the way AEDs work. Anyone already taking St Johns Wort and AEDs is advised to talk to their doctor about the risks and benefits of staying on the St Johns Wort or withdrawing it. It is important to speak to your doctor before stopping St Johns Wort or making any changes to your current treatment, as this may affect the balance of the treatment that is working for you.
Evening Primrose Oil
Evening primrose oil is a herbal extract used for various conditions, including pre-menstrual symptoms. Past reports have warned that evening primrose oil may trigger seizures for people with epilepsy but other researchers say there is no evidence for this risk.
The doctor who treats your epilepsy can advise you about the possible effects of a herbal medicine on your epilepsy and your current treatment.
More information about epilepsy and herbal medicine (opens new window).
Homeopathy is a holistic therapy which treats a person’s individual situation. Homeopathic doctors investigate a person’s health, life, and feelings in great detail. They may prescribe small doses of individually prepared natural substances to encourage the body to heal naturally. Although there is no evidence that homeopathic treatments directly help epilepsy, such an individual approach may help people feel better generally, and more in control of their epilepsy.
For more information visit the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (opens new window) or the British Homeopathic Association (opens new window).
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian health care system that has become very popular in the West in recent years. It covers all aspects of health and uses a combination of herbal medicine, diet, massage, yoga and meditation to treat conditions. Ayurveda aims to deal with underlying health imbalances and promote wellbeing. As with any treatments of this kind, especially medicines and meditation, it is important to think about your epilepsy.
A key part of ayurvedic treatment includes purging (cleansing) of the digestive system by using a substance to cause vomiting or diarrhoea. This can affect the blood levels of epilepsy medications, which could trigger seizures in some people.
As with other medicines that have not gone through clinical trials, some may be safe and other harmful. Case studies have been reported of some ayurvedic medicines containing poisons such as arsenic, mercury or lead. Because of the great popularity of Ayurveda in the west, ayurvedic treatments are easy to buy online or over the counter. It can be important to find a qualified Ayurveda practitioner, and ask your own doctor about any ayurvedic treatments you are considering before you take them.
Traditional Chinese medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient holistic system based on the idea of a life force (qi or chi) and of balance (yin and yang). Treatment for epilepsy may include three main approaches: herbal medicines, acupuncture and Tui Na (massage using acupressure, focusing on the unblocking of 'qi' points).
There is currently not enough evidence that traditional Chinese medicine is effective for epilepsy. Chinese herbal medicines tend to be compounds of different substances, and you won’t necessarily know what is in them. Cases have been reported of Chinese herbal medicines for epilepsy containing anti-epileptic drugs such as phenobarbital. Apart from potential interactions with any other AEDs a person may be on, any AED needs to be prescribed carefully to ensure the correct dose and type of drug for that person. Other ethical concerns include the use of animal products in some herbal medicines. Always consult your current doctor before taking herbal medicines, whether prescribed or ‘over the counter’.
Acupuncture involves inserting very fine pins or needles into specific points on a person’s body to stimulate energy pathways and natural healing processes. The needles may be left inserted for a few seconds, but are more commonly left in place for 30-40 minutes. Although there has been no evidence that acupuncture can directly improve a person’s epilepsy, it has been found to be effective in reducing stress and anxiety, which may then result in less seizures for some people with epilepsy. It can also improve wellbeing and underlying health, and help with headaches or fatigue associated with seizures. Many GP surgeries are now making acupuncture available to patients through the NHS.
For more information about acupuncture contact the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) (opens new window)
Training and psychological therapies
Autogenic training is a series of mental exercises which brings about relaxation similar to certain meditative states. The exercises aim to help the person become calm by switching off the body’s stress response, which then boosts the immune system’s function towards repair and recovery of the body.
There have been no specific studies of autogenic training in relation to epilepsy. However, some people who use this therapy claim to have better emotional balance, coping ability, wellbeing, quality of sleep, ability to relax, confidence and energy. They also report decreased anxiety, irritability and reactions to stress.
Autogenic therapists work in a variety of NHS settings with several based at the Autogenic training clinic at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM) (opens new window).
You can be referred to the RLHIM by your GP or consultant.
You can also find more information from the British Autogenic Society (opens new window).
Neurofeedback is a technique that may help you if your seizures start with a ‘warning’ or ‘aura’. The idea is that you can learn to control your brain activity, and level of relaxation, by watching a display on a computer screen. With practice and support from a trained therapist, some people may be able to limit the length of their focal (partial) seizures or prevent these spreading to become a generalised seizure. Neurofeedback training can be effective in some people, but it requires a lot of dedication, time and hard work from both the therapist and the person with epilepsy.
Neurofeedback is not currently available through the NHS. If you are looking for private treatment, it is important to find a practitioner with knowledge of epilepsy and neurofeedback research.
Psychological therapies may include relaxation techniques to release the tension in your body and relax your muscles. Behaviour modification therapy is another psychological approach. It looks at how your behaviour affects how you feel about having epilepsy, and how you live with the condition.
Relaxation therapy combined with behaviour modification therapy is used for both children and adults. Currently there is no evidence that these combined treatments can help to control seizures. However there is evidence that they may help some people feel less anxious and can also help them to adjust to having epilepsy.
These therapies may be offered by some psychologists with an interest in epilepsy. There is current research looking into how effective such treatments are for epilepsy.