Polypharmacy in patients with epilepsy: A nationally representative cross-sectional study

Samuel W. Terman, Carole E. Aubert, Chloe E. Hill, Donovan T. Maust, John P. Betjemann, Cynthia M. Boyd, James F. Burke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: The objective of the study was to characterize the prevalence of polypharmacy and central nervous system (CNS)-acting medications in patients with epilepsy, and particular types of medications. Methods: This was a retrospective cross-sectional study using data from the nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). We included patients who reported taking at least one prescription medication in order to treat seizures or epilepsy during NHANES survey years 2013–2016. We assessed the number and types of drugs and predictors of total number of medications using a negative binomial regression. We then assessed prevalence of polypharmacy (≥ 5 medications), CNS polypharmacy (≥ 3 CNS-acting medications) and additional CNS-acting medications, and drugs that lower the seizure threshold (i.e., bupropion and tramadol), and extrapolated prevalence to estimated affected US population. Results: The NHANES contained 20,146 participants, of whom 135 reported taking ≥ 1 antiseizure medication (ASM) for seizures or epilepsy representing 2,399,520 US citizens using NHANES's sampling frame. Patients reported taking a mean 5.3 (95% confidence interval (CI): 4.3–6.3) prescription medications. Adjusting for race, sex, and uninsurance, both age and number of chronic conditions predicted increased number of medications (incident rate ratio (IRR) per decade: 1.16, 95% CI: 1.04–1.28; IRR per chronic condition: 1.19, 95% CI: 1.11–1.27). Polypharmacy was reported by 47% (95% CI: 38%–57%) of patients, CNS polypharmacy by 34% (23%–47%), benzodiazepine use by 21% (14%–30%), opioid use by 16% (11%–24%), benzodiazepine plus opioid use by 6% (3%–14%), and 6% (2%–15%) reported a drug that lowers the seizure threshold. Twelve percent (7%–20%) took an opioid with either a benzodiazepine or gabapentinoid. Conclusions: Polypharmacy is common in patients with epilepsy. Patients taking ASMs frequently reported also taking other CNS-acting medications (i.e., opioids, benzodiazepines, seizure threshold-lowering medications), and medication combinations with black box warnings. Central nervous system polypharmacy poses health risks. Future research is needed to explore drivers of polypharmacy and strategies to help mitigate potentially harmful prescription use in this high-risk population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107261
JournalEpilepsy and Behavior
StatePublished - Oct 2020


  • Epidemiology
  • Epilepsy
  • Opioids
  • Polypharmacy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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