RESEARCH ARTICLE Open Access
Phenytoin versus Leviteracetam for Seizure
Prophylaxis after brain injury – a meta analysis
Syed Nabeel Zafar1, Abdul Ahad Khan2, Asfar Ayaz Ghauri2and Muhammad Shahzad Shamim1*
Background: Current standard therapy for seizure prophylaxis in Neuro-surgical patients involves the use of
Phenytoin (PHY). However, a new drug Levetiracetam (LEV) is emerging as an alternate treatment choice. We aimed
to conduct a meta-analysis to compare these two drugs in patients with brain injury.
Methods: An electronic search was performed in using Pubmed, Embase, and CENTRAL. We included studies that
compared the use of LEV vs. PHY for seizure prophylaxis for brain injured patients (Traumatic brain injury,
intracranial hemorrhage, intracranial neoplasms, and craniotomy). Data of all eligible studies was extracted on to a
standardized abstraction sheet. Data about baseline population characteristics, type of intervention, study design
and outcome was extracted. Our primary outcome was seizures.
Results: The literature search identified 2489 unduplicated papers. Of these 2456 papers were excluded by reading
the abstracts and titles. Another 25 papers were excluded after reading their complete text. We selected 8 papers
which comprised of 2 RCTs and 6 observational studies. The pooled estimate’s Odds Ratio 1.12 (95% CI=0.34, 3.64)
demonstrated no superiority of either drug at preventing the occurrence of early seizures. In a subset analysis of
studies in which follow up for seizures lasted either 3 or 7 days, the effect estimate remained insignificant with an
odds ratio of 0.96 (95% CI=0.34, 2.76). Similarly, 2 trials reporting seizure incidence at 6 months also had
insignificant pooled results while comparing drug efficacy. The pooled odds ratio was 0.96 (95% CI=0.24, 3.79).
Conclusions: Levetiracetam and Phenytoin demonstrate equal efficacy in seizure prevention after brain injury.
However, very few randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on the subject were found. Further evidence through a high
quality RCT is highly recommended.
Keywords: Levetiracetam, Phenytoin, Meta-analysis, Brain injury, Seizures, Prophylaxis, Anti-epileptic drugs
Seizures in neurosurgical patients are a common occur-
rence and may lead to several potential complications
such as higher metabolic demand of neurons, increased
intracranial pressure and secondary brain injury. Anti-
epileptic drug (AED) prophylaxis is commonly instituted
for the management of patients with brain injury as cer-
tain sub-groups have been shown to have beneficial
effects of seizure prophylaxis . Compared to placebo,
the drug Phenytoin (PHY) has been reported to be sig-
nificantly more effective in preventing post traumatic sei-
zures during the first 7 days (risk ratio, 0.27; 95 percent
confidence interval,0.12 to 0.62). However,
Phenytoin displays a wide array of side effects includ-
ing induction of the hepatic cytochrome P450 system,
cutaneous hypersensitivity reactions and inducing drug-
drug interactions [3,4]. Levetiracetam (LEV) on the other
hand, is a relatively new non-enzyme inducing AED and
is reported to have far lesser potential side effects .
Additionally, in contrast to PHY, it does not require close
monitoring by serial blood sampling due to a wider
therapeutic index. However, it is far more expensive than
PHY. In a recent study the cost of a 7-day course of PHY
was $37.50 compared to $480.00 for a 7 day course of
There is debate on the effectiveness of LEV compared
to PHY in seizure prophylaxis. Various trials have shown
diversified results with regards to the relative effective-
ness of the two drugs. Jones et al.  noted similar
efficacy for both drugs with regards to prevention of
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
1Department of Surgery, Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
© 2012 Zafar et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Zafar et al. BMC Neurology 2012, 12:30
seizures after traumatic injury. However, LEV was
attributed to increased epileptic activity on EEG moni-
toring. On the other hand, a randomized controlled
trial  revealed better long term outcomes for LEV
after neurosurgical injury compared to Phenytoin, with
no difference in seizure occurrence during EEG. We
aimed to conduct a meta-analysis of studies compar-
ing the efficacy of these two drugs in patients with
We systematically searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, Clini-
calTrials.gov and the Cochrane Central Register of Con-
trolled Trials (CENTRAL) for all comparative studies
and conference abstracts comparing the effect of Pheny-
toin (PHY) to Levetiracetam (LEV) on seizure prophy-
laxis among patients with brain injury. We defined brain
injury as patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI),
intracranial hemorrhage or those undergoing a craniot-
omy for any reason. We constructed search filters for a)
PHY (Phenytoin, Dilantin), b) LEV (Levetiracetam, Kep-
pra) and c) brain injury (TBI, intracranial hemorrhage,
intracranial neoplasms, craniotomy) using a combination
of MeSH terms and text words searches for synonyms
and related diseases. We separated these three concepts
by the boolean “AND” and limited the results (wherever
possible) by limiting to comparative studies (details of
search terms are provided in Additional file 1). No limits
were applied on language or date of publication. The
search was performed first on February 2nd, 2011 and
updated as of October 20th, 2011. Additionally we manu-
ally searched references of key articles. This meta-ana-
lysis is reported in accordance with the MOOSE
guidelines . Endnote X4 was used to maintain and
manage our library.
In duplicate and independently two investigators (AK
and AG) screened all studies and selected articles that
satisfied the inclusion criteria; a) comparative study
(trials, cohorts, case-controls and observational studies),
b) the study population consisted of patients with brain
injury, c) the study compared LEV to PHY and d) the
study reported outcomes of seizures and/or side effects.
We excluded studies that used combination therapies in-
stead of LEV and PHY monotherapy unless there were
separate arms for monotherapy. We aimed to include
only randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in our analysis
however due to their paucity we included other interven-
tion studies (before-after) and observational studies. Dis-
agreements were resolved by consensus or group
discussion with a third author.
We extracted data from all eligible studies on to a stan-
dardized data abstraction sheet. The extraction was
checked by another author independent of the first.
We extracted information on study characteristics, char-
acteristics of the population under study, operational
definitions and outcomes. Emails were sent to the corre-
sponding or first author of the studies or abstracts for
missing information. We waited for responses from
authors for a period of 12 weeks till October 1st2011.
A reminder email was also sent during this period.
Outcome data was collected for seizures (proportion of
patients with early and late seizures) and side effects
(presence/absence of individual side effects and pres-
ence/absence of any side effect studied by the authors).
We defined ‘early’ seizures as the number of patients that
had a seizure within a given time interval as defined by
the author. When there were a number of time intervals
we took it to be from injury till discharge or 30 days.
Since there is no consensus on the definition of ‘early
seizures’ we also performed a subset analysis defining
‘early seizures’ as seizures occurring within 7 days. ‘Late
seizures’ was defined as the number of patients that had
seized at a 6 month follow-up.
We used the ‘Newcastle-Ottawa Scale’ to assess the qual-
ity of studies selected for our analysis. This scale grades
Figure 1 Flow chart for study selection.
Zafar et al. BMC Neurology 2012, 12:30
Page 2 of 8
Table 1 Characteristics of studies included in the met-analyses
% Males Dosage/daySeizures
PHY LEV LEVPHYLEVPHY LEV
Jones et al. 
Milligan et al. 
Lim et al. 
USAObs Severe TBI4132 34.633.27573 N/A1000 mg 7 Days
USA ObsSupra-tentorial surgery21010560 56.34739 200-800 mg500-3000 mg 7 Days & 30 Days
8 15 48.242 10060 300-400 mg 1000-3000 mg6 months
Taylor et al. 
Murphy-Human et al. 
USARCT TBI, SAH 18 34 42 45 72.2 76.5 5 mg/kg 2000-3000 mg3 Days & 6 months
USAObs ICH25 60 70.263.3 52 40NA 500-2000 mgTill discharge
USA ObsSAH 297 145 5755 3028NA 1000 mg 3 Days & Till discharge
Obs Observational study, RCT Randomized Controlled Trial, LEV Levetiracetam, PHY Phenytoin, TBI Traumatic brain injury, ICH Intracranial hemorrhage, SAH Subarachnoid hemorrhage.
* Mean age has been estimated wherever not directly available.
Zafar et al. BMC Neurology 2012, 12:30
Page 3 of 8
each study on three criteria; selection (maximum of four
stars), comparability (maximum of 2 stars) and outcome
assessment (maximum of 3 stars). This is the scale
recommended by the Cochrane Non-Randomized Stud-
ies Methods Working Group.
Our primary outcomes were early and late seizures and
side-effects. We performed a meta-analysis when data
was available for more than one study. The summary ef-
fect estimate used was the odds ratios with its 95% confi-
dence interval. A 0.5 continuity correction was applied
to all four cells in case a zero value was present. We used
a DerSimonian and Laird random effects model with in-
verse variance weights to derive our pooled effect esti-
mate and Forrest plots were generated. Between studies
heterogeneity was assessed using a Cochran’s Q statistic
and the I2statistic . We considered a p value ≤0.1 or
an I2value of 50% or more as evidence of heterogeneity.
If heterogeneity was found we planned for subset ana-
lyses by follow up period for ‘early seizures’ and by elim-
inating one study at a time and rechecking the
We assessed publication bias by the Egger test and vis-
ual inspection of the funnel plot . We considered a p
value of <0.05 as evidence of significant publication bias.
All analyses were performed on STATA version 11
(STATA/SE, College Station, TX).
Literature search and study characteristics
Our search strategy initially identified 2,649 studies of
which 2,489 were unique (Figure 1). After screening titles
and abstracts we removed 2,456 studies and retrieved
the full text of 33 studies. From these 8 studies (6 obser-
vational studies and 2 RCTs) were selected to be suitable
for our meta-analysis and authors were contacted for
further information if necessary [7,12-17]. Due to paucity
of data we limited our analysis to only two outcomes;
early and late seizures. 6 studies (4 observational and 2
RCTs) reported these outcome and were selected for our
The study characteristics are presented in Table 1. A
total of 990 patients were included. All publications were
recent (from 2008 to 2011) and were all conducted in
the USA. The mean age of participants ranged from
33 years to 70 years. Most studies had a high percentage
of males except the study by Murphey-Human et al.
where both arms had around 70% females. All studies
were of sufficient quality to be included in the analysis
(Table 2). Only the study by Jones et al. had questionable
comparability between the two arms as no method to ad-
just for confounders was used.
Five of the six studies reported early seizures. Follow up
times ranged from 3 to 30 days. The pooled estimate
demonstrated no superiority of either drug at preventing
the occurrence of early seizures (Figure 2). The pooled
odds ratio was 1.12 (95% CI=0.34, 3.64). However sig-
nificant heterogeneity was found with a Cochran Q stat-
istic p value of 0.056 and the I2value was 57%. Upon
removing the study by Murphey-Human et al. (I2=17%,
p = 0.304). The pooled odds ratio of 1.9 (95% CI=0.61,
5.75) favored less seizures in the LEV group however this
estimate also remained insignificant (Figure 3). The study
by Murphey- Human et al. was unique as it was the only
study to demonstrate a difference in the two drugs,
included only patients presenting with subarachnoid
hemorrhage and also included a high proportion of
females (70%). However it was also the largest study and
rated highly on quality.
We performed a subset analysis of studies in which
‘early seizures’ was defined as seizures occurring within
the first 7 days. Four studies were included in this
analysis (Figure 4). Again heterogeneity was eliminated
with the I2being 22% (p=0.278). The effect estimate
remained insignificant with an odds ratio of 0.96 and
95% confidence bounds of 0.34 to 2.76.
Two studies reported seizure incidence at 6 months
[8,13]. Both of these were randomized controlled trials.
The pooled estimate again demonstrated no superiority
of either drug (Figure 5). The pooled odds ratio was 0.96
with 95% confidence bounds of 0.24 and 3.79. The total
number of patients however, was low with only 26 in the
PHY arm and 49 in LEV arm. No heterogeneity was
observed while pooling effects estimates of these two
studies. The Cochran Q statistic p value equaled 0.400
and the I2value was 0%.
We found no evidence of publication bias when we
tested our primary outcome of ‘early seizures’. The Egger
p value was 0.195 demonstrating no small study effects.
The funnel plot is provided in Additional file 1.
Table 2 Quality assessment of studies included in the
Jones et al  Cohort*** ***
Milligan et al. Cohort***** ***
Lim et al. RCT*** ****
Szaflarski RCT *** ** ***
Taylor et al. Cohort *** ****
et al. 
Zafar et al. BMC Neurology 2012, 12:30
Page 4 of 8
We find no difference in the effectiveness of early or late
seizure prophylaxis between Levetiracetam and Pheny-
toin in patients with brain injury. Seizure prophylaxis for
neurosurgical problems has been in practice for a long
time [18-23]. The practice is based on the understanding
that various sub-groups of neurosurgical patients are at a
relatively higher risk of seizures and onset of seizures has
been shown to independently predict poor outcome [24-
26]. The most common reason for risk of seizures
in these patients is raised intracranial pressure and/or
presence of an abnormal supratentorial focus; which may
be the injured neural tissue itself, or an intra-cranial
mass lesion such as a tumor. Supratentorial surgery also
poses a similar risk for patients as post-operative cerebral
edema from surgical manipulation and tissue trauma
predisposes these patients to seizures [24,27,28]. It thus
appeared reasonable to group such patients together for
this meta-analysis, especially since the available literature
on individual neurosurgical sub-groups does not provide
sufficient patient numbers for conclusive scientific
Phenytoin has traditionally been the drug of choice for
prophylaxis in these patients and even though its efficacy
is widely accepted, the drug’s side effects remain a sig-
nificant problem, especially on long term use [29-32].
Side effects from anti-epileptic medications are a serious
problem in neurosurgical patients with data for brain
tumor patients alone reporting severe side effects in up
to 23.8% of patients [32-37]. These include drug-drug
Figure 2 Forrest Plot of studies reporting early seizures.
Figure 3 Subset analysis: Forrest Plot of studies reporting early seizures excluding the study by Murphey-Human et al.
Zafar et al. BMC Neurology 2012, 12:30
Page 5 of 8
reactions, elevation of hepatic enzymes, skin related
problems, thrombocytopenia, unexplained fever etc., and
in one study resulted in discontinuation of Phenytoin
therapy in 39.8% of patients . Moreover, Phenytoin
drug levels have to be periodically monitored to insure
therapeutic levels in serum as small changes in drug dos-
age or metabolism may lead to disproportionate changes
in serum concentrations .
Levetiracetam has been shown to have comparable
clinical efficacy by a number of investigators, with the
added benefit of much fewer side effects; and the fact
that drug levels are not required to be serially monitored
. The few side effects associated with Levetiracetam
include headache, nausea/vomiting, drowsiness, dizziness
and behavioral changes. Milligan et al. in their study
demonstrate that 64% of patients on Levetiracetam
adhered to therapy after 12 month follow up as com-
pared to 26% of patients on Phenytoin . Levetirace-
tam was initially limited in its clinical application by a
lack of available intravenous formulation, which hindered
its usage in critically ill patients. Although this limitation
has been overcome, the other potential disadvantage is the
high cost of the drug, which makes its use difficult. Out of
pocket payment systems in developing countries and lim-
ited discharge drug plans in developed countries make it a
burden for the patient to bear this additional cost. In
developed countries, limited drug plans upon discharge
prove to be a hindrance for the patient to receive the
medication. A recent study comparing the cost effective-
ness of both drugs has estimated that for post-traumatic
seizure prophylaxis, phenytoin costs $1.58 per quality
adjusted life year (QALY) as compared to $20.72 per
QALY for levetiracetam . The authors concluded that
levetiracetam can only be considered more cost-effective
to phenytoin if it prevented 100% of seizures and costed
<$400 for a 7 day course. However a limitation of this
study is that it did not account for the costs related to
monitoring of phenytoin blood levels or for the cost of side
effects. The study assumed that ‘severe adverse events that
could impact costs were rare for each drug’.
Figure 4 Subset analysis: Forrest Plot of studies reporting seizures within 7 days.
Figure 5 Forrest Plot of studies reporting late seizures.
Zafar et al. BMC Neurology 2012, 12:30
Page 6 of 8
To date there have been several studies on the com-
parative efficacy and safety of these two drugs in differ-
ent patient populations, although the numbers have been
small and results variable [7,13,15]. Interestingly, all
studies comparing the two drugs came from one
region, North America. This is difficult to explain but
may be either due to a larger number of practicing
neurosurgeons and neurophysicians, wider interest in
anti-epileptics, or better funding opportunities for drug
related research. We nevertheless recommend more
RCTs to be conducted in different parts of the world to
provide a mix of population and eliminate bias.
Even though the benefits of seizure prophylaxis have
been accepted for prevention of early seizures in TBI
patients, there remains a question whether it should be
used for other pathologies such as brain tumors and
SAH; and for the prevention of late seizures. We did not
attempt to evaluate the role of either of these drugs for
individual pathologies, however, through this study; an
attempt was made to separately analyze their efficacies in
early and late seizures. The problem we encountered was
the variations in the definition of early seizures. Since
this was an analysis of published literature we were lim-
ited by the time interval in which each study assessed
seizure activity. ‘Early seizures’ varied between 3 days,
7 days, 30 days or ‘till discharge’. Even though we found
no heterogeneity in the results due to this variation,
it remains a limitation of the study. To overcome this
limitation, we conducted the analysis using two different
types of definitions for ‘early seizures’; within the first
month and within the first week. The results of both
analyses were similar. We were able to study effects for a
consistent definition of ‘late seizures’ (1 month to
6 months). Even though this may not be a typical defin-
ition of ‘late seizures’ it does provide us with a reliable
measure to compare efficacy of the two drugs. Despite
differences in the precise definition of early and late
seizures, no statistically significant difference in risk of
seizures could be found between the two drugs for either
early, or late seizures.
We initially planned to do a meta-analysis of RCTs
alone, however, a comprehensive search of literature
failed to reveal adequate number of RCTs, or RCTs with
large number of patients comparing these two drugs and
we were therefore required to include observational
studies in this analysis. This caused issues with compar-
ability and adjustment of confounders. We would there-
fore recommend more RCTs on this topic, without
which it remains elusive to reach meaningful conclusions
in this regard. Since there were insufficient RCTs on the
topic, we were required to include observational studies
in the meta-analysis, with associated problems of com-
parability and confounders. This included the lack of
standard dosage for the two drugs in individual studies.
We were also not able to analyze all study details, despite
our best efforts to contact authors of published or in
print papers and abstracts. Similarly, we could not assess
other outcomes such as drug side effects, number of sei-
zures per patient, optimal dose and duration for
On the basis of our analysis of available literature,
we conclude that there is no significant difference in
seizure prophylaxis for either early or late seizures; for
either Phenytoin or Levetiracetam. However, paucity of
good quality evidence limits our conclusion. Better qual-
ity RCTs from centers in different parts of the world
Additional file 1: Annex 1: Search Strategy, Annex 2: Funnel plot for
RCT: Randomized controlled trial; PHY: Phenytoin; LEV: Levetiracetam;
CI: Confidence Interval; AED: Anti-epileptic drug;
EEG: Electroencephalography; MeSH: Medical subject heading; MOOSE: Meta-
analysis of observational studies in epidemiology.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
1Department of Surgery, Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan.2Medical
College, Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan.
SNZ and SS conceived of the study. SNZ and AAK finalized the search
strategy. AAK and AAG primarily screened studies and abstracted data with
supervision from SNZ and SS. SNZ, AAK and AAG analyzed the data. All
authors took part in data interpretation, manuscript writing and critically
reviewing the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final
Source of funding
This study did not receive any funding. None of the authors received funding
in part or in full for contribution to this study or for any related work.
Received: 14 February 2012 Accepted: 29 May 2012
Published: 29 May 2012
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Cite this article as: Zafar et al.: Phenytoin versus Leviteracetam for
Seizure Prophylaxis after brain injury – a meta analysis. BMC Neurology
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Zafar et al. BMC Neurology 2012, 12:30
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