Epilepsy is a chronic neurological condition. The main symptom is unpredictable seizures.
The Effects of Epilepsy on the Body
Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that causes recurring seizures. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, almost three million Americans are living with epilepsy. Epilepsy can be triggered by illness or injury, but most of the time, there is no known cause. Because it is a disorder of the central nervous system, effects can be felt throughout the body. Due to the unpredictability of seizures, there can also be a great emotional toll.
Central Nervous System
The brain is the central hub for all voluntary and involuntary movements in your body. Electrical activity running through nerve cells help your brain tell your body what to do. When abnormal signals interrupt the brain’s normal functioning, you can have a seizure. There are several different types of seizures.
Focal seizures, also called partial seizures, are when abnormal electrical functions happen on only one side of the brain. Some people feel an aura, or a feeling of euphoria or doom, right before having a seizure. Other pre-seizure symptoms include changes to sight, hearing, or smell perception.
In a simple focal seizure, symptoms depend on which area of the brain is involved. The seizure may be accompanied by nausea or sweating. A complex focal seizure happens in the temporal lobe, which affects memory and emotion. This type of seizure usually involves loss of consciousness or lack of awareness of what’s happening. Symptoms may include screaming, crying, laughing, or lip smacking. There’s usually a feeling of sleepiness following a complex focal seizure.
When both sides of the brain are involved, it’s called a generalized seizure, which may cause loss of consciousness. Absence seizures, or petit mal seizures, are short, usually lasting half a minute or less. A person having an absence seizure may appear to be staring and will have no awareness of what happened. There may be some facial twitching or rapid blinking. In atonic seizures, or drop attacks, there’s a sudden loss of muscle tone, causing you to fall without warning.
In a generalized tonic-clonic seizure, or grand mal seizure, the body and limbs contract and extend. This is followed by tremor, after which the muscles relax. Other symptoms include fatigue, severe headache, and body aches. Sometimes there are speech and vision disturbances. People who have numerous tonic-clonic seizures are at increased risk of sudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP). Myoclonic seizures involve sudden, jerky muscle movements. This type of seizure usually happens multiple times a day over several days.
Status epilepticus describes a seizure that lasts for an extended time – usually from 5 to 30 minutes. It can also mean you’re having multiple seizures without coming to consciousness in between. Status epilepticus increases the risk of permanent damage to the brain.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation Michigan, about 30 percent of people with epilepsy eventually develop clinical depression. Epileptic seizures can also make you more prone to falls and injuries. There’s a common misconception that you can swallow your tongue when you’re having a seizure, but that’s not possible.
Circulatory and Respiratory Systems
Epileptic seizures can interfere with your heart rhythm and breathing. Symptoms include shortness of breath and coughing. In rare cases, choking occurs. Over the long term, epilepsy increases risk of heart disease and stroke. Some cases of SUDEP are thought to be due to heart and breathing problems.
Muscular and Digestive Systems
During a seizure, misfires from the brain can tell your muscles to contract and relax. A seizure may cause muscles to jerk uncontrollably. In some cases, you can lose muscle tone so quickly that you fall down. When muscles surrounding your vocal cords seize up, it pushes out air. It sounds like a cry or a scream.
Epilepsy, and some of the drugs used to treat it, can cause digestive problems like heartburn, nausea, and vomiting. Constipation and diarrhea can also be problematic. In children, epileptic seizures can cause abdominal pain. During a seizure, or immediately following one, you may lose bowel or bladder control.
Although epilepsy doesn’t affect the reproductive system directly, it can have an impact on pregnancy. Among women with epilepsy, about 25 to 40 percent experience a higher number of seizures during pregnancy, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Most women with epilepsy have healthy pregnancies and deliver healthy babies. However, there is a higher risk of hypertension, delivering an underweight baby, and stillbirth. Pregnant women with epilepsy should be closely monitored.