Epilepsy is a group of related disorders characterized by a tendency for recurrent seizures. There are different types of epilepsy and seizures. Epilepsy drugs are prescribed to control seizures, and rarely surgery is necessary if medications are ineffective.
What Is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a problem with the brain’s electrical system. Electrical impulses cause brief changes in movement, behavior, feeling, or awareness. These events, known as seizures, may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. People who have had two or more seizures without obvious triggers separated by at least 24 hours are considered to have epilepsy.
Epilepsy is widely known for causing convulsions — sudden, uncontrolled movements. But seizures can trigger a wide range of other symptoms, from staring to falling to fumbling with clothes. Doctors divide seizures into different types depending on how the brain is affected. Each has its own set of symptoms.
Absence seizures are often described as staring spells. The person stops what he is doing and stares vacantly for a few seconds, then continues as if nothing happened. This type of seizure is more common in children and usually starts between the ages of 4 and 12. Some children have as many as 100 absence seizures in one day.
Generalized Tonic-Clonic Seizures
Generalized tonic clonic seizures (formerly known as grand mal seizures) are the most easily recognized. They usually begin with a stiffening of the arms and legs, and are followed by jerking motions. These convulsions can last up to 3 minutes. After having one, a person may be tired and confused. This type of seizure involves both sides of the brain.
In partial seizures, just one side of the brain is affected. A person having a simple partial seizure may have jerking motions or hallucinations, and still be aware of what is happening. When having a complex partial seizure, a person may wander, mumble, smack their lips, or fumble with their clothes. He or she may appear to be conscious to those around them, but is actually unaware of what they are doing.
Causes of Epilepsy
Anything that disrupts the brain’s natural circuitry can cause epilepsy, such as:
- Severe head injury
- Brain infection or disease
- Oxygen deprivation
A specific cause is never found for nearly two-thirds of people with epilepsy.
Epilepsy in Children
Children with epilepsy may outgrow it in a few years. Before then, many kids are able to stop seizures by taking regular medication. If drugs alone don’t keep it under control, other treatments may help. A well-informed school staff can help a child with epilepsy safely take part in most activities.
A doctor will review the description of your seizures and your medical history and examine you. An EEG (electroencephalogram) can confirm a diagnosis and give more information about your seizures. It’s a painless procedure that records the brain’s electrical activity as wavy lines. The pattern changes during a seizure and may show which part of the brain is affected. That can help guide treatment.
Diagnosis: Brain Scan
Detailed images of the brain from CT or MRI scans can help doctors rule out tumors or blood clots as a cause of seizures. A CT scan is a powerful type of X-ray, and an MRI uses magnets and radio waves to make pictures. This information will help your doctor come up with the best treatment plan for you.
The best way to avoid complications is to find a treatment that helps you and stick with it. Most people with epilepsy live long lives and rarely are injured during their seizures. A person who tends to fall during seizures may need a special helmet to protect his head. Some types of seizures may increase the risk of death, but this is rare.
Epilepsy Safety Precautions
Because seizures often strike without warning, certain activities can be dangerous. Losing consciousness while swimming or even taking a bath could be life-threatening. The same goes for many extreme sports, such as mountain climbing. Most states require you to be seizure-free for a certain amount of time before driving a car.