Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by seizures. Short bursts of intense electrical energy in the brain cause seizures.
When these bursts occur in one part of the brain, it’s known as a partial seizure. When they occur throughout the whole brain, it’s known as a generalized seizure. These seizures cause symptoms in the entire body. This type of epilepsy was previously known as generalized convulsive epilepsy.
A generalized seizure may also be known as a generalized tonic-clonic seizure or a grand mal seizure.
Generalized seizures follow a basic pattern. First, your muscles stiffen and become rigid. Then, you experience violent muscle contractions in which the muscles move in quick, random spasms. You lose consciousness, or black out, so that you’re no longer aware of what’s happening.
During a generalized seizure, you may:
- bite your cheek or tongue
- lock your jaw
- lose control of your bladder or bowels
- turn blue in the face
Before the seizure begins, you may have odd changes in:
You may see images that aren’t really there, or hallucinate, have a tingling sensation, or feel disoriented. This experience before the seizure is known as an aura.
After the seizure, you may have no memory of the event. You may feel normal again, or you may experience:
- Todd’s paralysis, which is a temporary weakness on one side of the body
Possible causes of epilepsy and seizures include:
- a change in the structure of your brain
- an infections of the brain, such as meningitis or encephalitis
- head trauma
- a brain tumor
- Alzheimer’s disease
- a stroke, or a loss of blood flow to the brain resulting in brain cell death
- congenital conditions, including Down syndrome or tuberous sclerosis
According to the Johns Hopkins Epilepsy Center, some people may have a seizure due to causes other than epilepsy. A single seizure can be due to a high fever, a serious head injury, or a loss of oxygen
If you have epilepsy, these lifestyle factors may increase your risk of seizures:
- emotional stress
- new drugs, vitamins, or supplements
- a lack of sleep
- alcohol or recreational drug use
- illness, such as an infection
If you think you or someone close to you may have epilepsy, you should seek professional advice. You should keep a detailed record of any seizures. This information may help your doctor make a diagnosis. You can lower your likelihood of developing complications, such as traumatic injury, if you get treatment for 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 attached your head. During or between seizures, the machine may record unusual patterns. You may have to stay in a hospital where specialists can monitor your brain on a video screen to get a clear reading. This is called a video EEG. You may also have to wear a portable EEG recorder on your head for a while outside of the hospital and while you’re going about your normal activities.
Your doctor may also use imaging methods to scan your brain and look for abnormal formations. These imaging methods may include a CT or MRI scan.
They may also perform tests, such as a blood chemistry test, a blood sugar test, and a complete blood count.
They may also test your kidneys and liver function to look for diseases that cause epilepsy.
Anticonvulsants are medications used to help prevent seizures. You must take these as directed for them to work. Side effects such as birth defects can occur from certain medications used to treat epilepsy with generalized seizures.
Surgery is another possible treatment. Your surgeon can:
- remove abnormal brain cells that are causing the seizures
- place a vagus nerve stimulator to help reduce seizures
- remove tumors or treat any abnormal blood vessels or bleeding in the brain
Complications associated with epilepsy include:
- permanent brain damage, such as stroke
- learning disabilities
- inhaling foreign substances into your lungs during a seizure, causing aspiration pneumonia
- traumatic injury
You should call 911 if someone is:
- having a seizure for the first time
- having longer or more unusual seizures than they normally do
- having 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 you can control, but there’s no known cure. Your doctor may recommend that you wear medical alert jewelry. This helps others 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.
Continuous medication may be necessary to reduce the number of seizures. With proper treatment, including medication and healthy lifestyle changes, some people have few to no seizures.
There’s no specific way to prevent developing epilepsy. If you have epilepsy, following a healthy lifestyle by getting plenty of sleep and eating well can decrease the chances of triggering a seizure. Some children and adults may go on a special diet to lower their chances of having a seizure.