Background: Valproate is approved for use primarily in patients with absence seizures, but the drug has a broad spectrum of activity against seizures of all types. Partial or secondarily generalized tonic-clonic seizures are often difficult to control adequately with standard treatment, usually carbamazepine or phenytoin.
Methods: We conducted a multicenter, double-blind trial that compared valproate with carbamazepine in the treatment of 480 adults with complex partial seizures (206 patients) or secondarily generalized tonic-clonic seizures (274 patients). The patients were randomly assigned to treatment with carbamazepine or divalproex sodium (valproate) at doses adjusted to achieve blood levels in the middle of the therapeutic range. Patients were followed for one to five years or until seizures became uncontrollable, treatment had unacceptable adverse effects, or both these events occurred.
Results: For the control of secondarily generalized tonic-clonic seizures, carbamazepine and valproate were comparably effective (in 136 patients and 138 patients, respectively). For complex partial seizures, four of five outcome measures favored carbamazepine (100 patients) over valproate (106 patients): the total number of seizures (2.7 vs. 7.6, P = 0.05), the number of seizures per month (0.9 vs. 2.2, P = 0.01), the time to the first seizure (P less than 0.02), and the seizure-rating score (P = 0.04). Carbamazepine was also superior according to a composite score that combined scores for the control of seizures and for adverse effects (P less than 0.001). Valproate was associated more frequently than carbamazepine with a weight gain of more than 5.5 kg (12 lb) (20 percent vs. 8 percent, P less than 0.001), with hair loss or change in texture (12 percent vs. 6 percent, P = 0.02), and with tremor (45 percent vs. 22 percent, P less than 0.001). Rash was more often associated with carbamazepine (11 percent vs. 1 percent, P less than 0.001).
Conclusions: Valproate is as effective as carbamazepine for the treatment of generalized tonic-clonic seizures, but carbamazepine provides better control of complex partial seizures and has fewer long-term adverse effects.