Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by seizures (convulsions). Seizures are caused by short bursts of intense electrical energy in the brain.
When these bursts occur in one part of the brain, it is called a partial seizure. When they occur throughout the whole brain, it is called a generalized seizure. These seizures cause symptoms in the entire body.
A generalized seizure may also be called a generalized tonic-clonic seizure or a grand mal seizure. Epilepsy may sometimes be referred to as a seizure disorder.
Epilepsy may be caused by infections such as:
- meningitis (bacterial infection of the brain)
- encephalitis (swelling of the brain)
- AIDS (an infection caused by the HIV virus)
- brain abscess (abnormal, fluid-filled formations (infections))
It may also be caused by conditions such as:
- dementia (loss of brain function such as memory)
- stroke (loss of blood flow to the brain resulting in brain cell death)
- tuberous sclerosis (a genetic condition)
- congenital brain defect (brain issues that are present at birth)
Some medications may contribute to epilepsy. These include:
- antidepressants (used to relieve depression)
- tramadol (pain medication)
- cocaine (illegal recreational drug)
- amphetamines (stimulants, can be legal or illegal)
According to the Epilepsy Foundation (EF), the cause of epilepsy is unknown in seven out of 10 patients (EF)
Generalized seizures follow this basic pattern:
- Rigid muscles—muscles suddenly become stiff
- Violent muscle contractions—muscles move in quick, random spasms
- Loss of consciousness—patient no longer aware of what is happening—“blacking out”
During a generalized seizure, the patient may:
- bite his or her cheek or tongue
- lock his or her teeth
- lose control of bladder and/or bowels
- turn blue in the face
Before the seizure begins, many patients have odd changes in taste, emotions, vision, and smell. They may hallucinate (see images that aren’t really there), have a tingling sensation, or feel disoriented. This experience is referred to as an aura.
After the seizure, patients may have no memory of the event. They may feel normal again, or they may experience:
- Todd’s paralysis—temporary weakness on one side of the body
If you think you or someone close to you may be epileptic, you should seek professional advice. Keep a detailed record of any unusual episodes. This information may help your doctor make a diagnosis. You can lower your likelihood of developing complications, such as traumatic injury, if you treat the disorder early.
In addition to asking for an overview of your medical history, your doctor will probably use an Electroencephalogram (EEG) machine to check for abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
An EEG records brain waves picked up by small wires that are attached to the patient’s head. During or between seizures, the machine may record unusual patterns. In order to get a clear reading, you may have to:
- stay in a hospital where your brain can be monitored by specialists on a video screen (video EGG)
- wear a portable EGG recorder on your head for a period of time. This is done outside of the hospital, while you are going about your normal activities.
Your doctor may also use imaging methods to scan the brain and look for abnormal formations. These imaging methods may include a computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
They may also perform tests such as:
- blood chemistry
- blood sugar
- complete blood count (CBC)
They may test your kidneys and liver function, or test for diseases that are known to cause epilepsy.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, some people may have a seizure, but this doesn’t mean that they have epilepsy. A single seizure can be caused by:
Medications used to help prevent seizures are called anticonvulsants. They must be taken as directed to work.
Surgery may be done to:
- remove abnormal brain cells that are causing the seizures
- place a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) to help reduce seizures
- remove tumors or treat any abnormal blood vessels or bleeding in the brain
Some children and adults may be placed on a special diet to lower the chance of having a seizure.
If you are epileptic, some lifestyle factors may increase the risk of seizures. These include:
- emotional stress
- new drugs, vitamins, or supplements
- lack of sleep
- alcohol or recreational drug use
- illness or infection
Your doctor may recommend that you wear medical alert jewelry. This helps others to know what to do if you have a seizure.
Some states may prevent you from driving. You should avoid activities that could cause you serious bodily harm if you lose awareness.
Complications associated with epilepsy include:
- permanent brain damage, such as stroke
- learning disability
- inhaling foreign substances into lungs during a seizure, causing aspiration pneumonia
- traumatic injury
- side effects from medication, such as birth defects
You should call 911 if someone is:
- having a seizure for the first time
- having longer or more unusual seizures (if they already have regular seizures)
- multiple seizures over the course of a few minutes
- not waking up between seizures
- experiencing new symptoms, such as poor coordination, nausea, or vomiting
Epilepsy is a chronic condition that is controlled rather than cured. Continuous medication may be necessary to reduce the number of seizures. With proper treatment, including medication and healthy lifestyle changes, some people are able to have few to no seizures.
There is no specific way to prevent developing epilepsy. If you have been diagnosed with epilepsy, following a healthy lifestyle by getting plenty of sleep and eating well can decrease the chances of triggering a seizure.