Can Ice Packs Stop A Seizure? (epilepsy)

Source: WHO infographics on epilepsy

Ice packs (cold packs) applied to the lower back at the first sign of a seizure may be able to halt or significantly decrease the severity of a seizure.

(If I’m correct, then this is the most important post on this blog, so please share.)

After researching ways to stop seizures, I suggested this to a friend with epilepsy. Her previous seizure lasted for 5 minutes (absolutely terrifying); this time her husband ran to the fridge, got two ice packs on her back, and the seizure immediately began slowing.

Obviously this is only an anecdote, but if you or a loved one has seizures, I can’t imagine it would hurt to try.

Let’s run through the evidence in favor of ice packs:

Seizures can definitely be triggered by being too hot–febrile seizures are somewhat common in children with fevers. Hyperthermia (heat stroke) can also cause seizures. And, yes, you can induce seizures in rats by heating them up. In the rat experiment, note that the seizure-prone rats’s temperatures went up more than the seizure-resistant rats–seizures may be more common in people whose bodies have difficulty regulating their temperatures.

Seizures also independently increase brain temperature in rats, and preventing this temperature increase, at least during hypoxic seizures, appears to protect rats against brain damage. But these are rats, obviously, not humans.

“Status epilepticus” is a seizure that lasts for more than 5 minutes or that recurs within a 5 minute period, and is considered a life-threatening emergency. 10-30% of people with status epilepticus die within 30 days. The immediate treatment for such cases is of course with anti-seizure medications, but some seizures (refractory status epilepticus) don’t even respond to this. In these cases, hypothermia–cooling the patient–appears to stop the seizures. (At least until the patient warms up again, but this gives doctors time to work out a better treatment plan.)

That said, seizure-prone people don’t need to be cold all the time–summer weather doesn’t cause an overall uptick in seizures (and some people’s seizures are actually triggered by being cold. If you are one of these people, ice packs may not be for you.)

I encountered the ice packs trick on forums where people were talking about treating seizures in dogs. (Yes, there are dogs with epilepsy.) There are many accounts of people successfully stopping or preventing their dogs from going into a seizure by grabbing a cold pack at the first warning signs and putting it directly onto the dog’s lower back:

We have a precious little Jack Russell Terrier named Scamp. … he is one of many dogs who have epilepsy. This has broken our hearts over the last three-and-a-half years. …

Recently my husband and I did research on the Internet regarding dogs with epilepsy. What we found was amazing. Something the eight or so vets we have seen over the past years had never even mentioned to us. It’s as simple as keeping a bag of ice in your freezer.

We had never tried this until this morning at 5:00 a.m. when Scamp began seizuring. I’ve never seen anything work so fast in my life. As I write this this morning I’m still amazed and can’t believe that what ended a seziure was as simple as a bag of ice and 2 teaspoons of vanilla ice cream to elevate his blood sugar level.

Here’s how it works: all you do is fill a food storage bag (at least one quart size) with crushed ice and leave it in the freezer. When your dog starts to seizure remove the bag of ice from the freezer and place it firmly on his lower back. Scamp came out of his seizure in about 30 to 60 seconds. …

He came out of the seizure smoothly and with no post-ictal symptoms whatsoever. He began to walk and followed my husband and I right into the kitchen. I went to the freezer and took out vanilla ice cream and took two teaspoons out of the carton. … he lapped it up. He was fine. He wanted to go outside so my husband followed him out to make sure he would be OK. He went to the bathroom, roamed around the yard for a bit and came in and went back to sleep on our bed. I’m still in shock.

The ice cream is to help get the dog’s blood sugar levels back up to normal. Humans might also find this useful.

Here’s another testimonial, from one of the links above:

We have been using ice packs to help manage our girl’s seizures for over a year now. From what I have heard first hand from others is that it either doesn’t work at all or it works fabulously. With our girl it “works fabulously”. It is not the miracle cure and it does not prevent future seizures but it definitely stops her grand mal right in its tracks. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I would love to get it on video but as you all know a seizure is such a highly emotionally time that grabbing the camera is the last thing on my mind. If we get the ice pack on her within the first 15 seconds or so, the grand mal just suddenly stops. Like a light switch. All motor movement comes to a halt. She continues to be incoherent for a bit but all movements stop.

“Lani” is a 65 lb. Lab with a pretty thick coat. Our first attempts did not go so well because those little blue ice packs or baggies did nothing. So I custom made her packs using large seal a meal bags with water and rubbing alcohol that I keep in the freezer. It is perfect because its super cold but pliable so you can form it over their back. Every seizure she has is treated with the ice packs. She is also on high doses of meds, supplements, etc. but my personal belief is that the ice pack treatment helps to significantly reduce the length of the seizure.

The Journal of American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association published an article on the use of ice packs to stop seizures in dogs, A Simple, Effective Technique for Arresting Canine Epileptic Seizures, back in 2004. You can read it for a mere $95, or check out the highlights on Dawg Business’s blog:

Fifty-one epileptic canine patients were successfully treated during an epileptic seizure with a technique involving the application of ice on the back (T10 to L4). This technique was found to be effective in aborting or shortening the duration of the seizure.

And of course, in a study of rat seizures, the cold rats didn’t have any while the warm rats did.

The technique doesn’t work for all dogs, but it works for enough that it really seems like there must be something there.

But I haven’t read any cases of people using ice packs to treat seizures in humans–the (small quantity of) veterinary literature doesn’t appear to have made it over to human trials. But if it works for dogs, why not try it on people? It would be simplest, cheapest, least side-effect-inducing option for millions of people whose seizures can’t be fully controlled by medication.

Why does it work?

I don’t know. The ice packs probably aren’t in contact with the dogs for long enough to significantly lower the dog’s brain temperature, although they might lower the temperature of spinal nerves.

Perhaps the sudden cold just has an overwhelming effect on the brain that interrupts whatever feedback loop is causing the seizure.

From The Hidden Genetics of Epilepsy

Why not just medicate the seizures away?

Seizures are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions (actually, a friend of the family who had epilepsy died of a seizure that occurred while taking a bath.) Seizure medications, by necessity, are also serious and can have major side effects. According to the WHO, 70% of epileptics respond well to medication and live normal lives–leaving 30% of people who don’t. For many people, especially children, treatment is about trying to find a balance between minimizing harm from seizures and minimizing harm from anti-seizure medications.

So for anyone out there with epilepsy or another seizure condition, please consider ice packs as one more tool in your arsenal. And for any doctors out there, please do some research on this; there’s got to be some medical award for anyone who can prove it.

Good luck.

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