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What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition in which there is disordered electrical activity in the brain. Symptoms of epilepsy depend on the exact location and the severity of the brain disturbance. Causes of disturbances in electrical activity in the brain include drug withdrawal, electrolyte imbalances, and injury and infection. However, the cause for seizure activity is often unknown.

The symptom most commonly identified with epilepsy is recurrent seizures, which are caused by sudden electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can range from small, short-duration, abnormal sensations to large, spastic convulsions. They are often marked by changes in consciousness and can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.

The progression of epilepsy depends on the underlying cause, which could be brain injury, surgery, disease, or a developmental defect. In some cases, epilepsy may resolve spontaneously. Medications can control seizures, allowing you to lead a normal life.

Treatment goals for epilepsy include controlling seizure activity, reducing drug side effects, and preserving quality of life. Medical treatment is the mainstay of therapy for epilepsy. However, for some patients, if the starting location of your seizures (focus) is identifiable, surgical removal of the part of the brain responsible for the problem may be attempted. Alternatively, electrical stimulation is sometimes used to help control seizures. Current research for epilepsy includes the development of better drug therapy and electrical stimulation techniques to control and prevent seizures.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any seizure, as prompt medical treatment may reduce the risk and severity of future seizures.

What are the symptoms of epilepsy?

The symptom that defines epilepsy is recurrent seizures, which are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. The seizures are characterized by moments of mental absence, changes in consciousness, changes in sensation, muscular contractions, and twitching. Seizures may be very mild or very severe and can last from a few seconds to several minutes. It is possible to have many seizures in succession or to have them only occasionally.

Common symptoms of epilepsy

You may experience epilepsy symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times any of these symptoms can be severe:

  • Abnormal sensations
  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior
  • Changes in responsiveness
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Muscle twitching, spasms or seizures

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, epilepsy can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any seizure, as prompt medical treatment may reduce the risk and severity of future seizures.

What causes epilepsy?

Epilepsy can result from any type of damage to the brain, though in some cases the cause is not known. Epilepsy can be related to development, brain injury, brain infection, surgery, or medication side effects. It is important to note that a single seizure does not mean you have epilepsy. Seizures must be recurrent to establish a diagnosis of epilepsy.

Causes of epilepsy

There are many possible causes of epilepsy, many of which are serious and even potentially life-threatening conditions including:

  • Brain defects present since birth

  • Brain infection

  • Brain injury

  • Brain tumors

  • Dementia

  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)

  • Kidney or liver failure

  • Metabolic diseases such as phenylketonuria (inability to break down the amino acid phenylalanine)

  • Stroke

What are the risk factors for epilepsy?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing epilepsy. Not all people with risk factors will get epilepsy. Risk factors for epilepsy include:

  • Family history of epilepsy

  • Infections of the brain such as encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)

  • Recent brain surgery

  • Recent head injury

Seizure risk factors

In addition to risk factors for the development of epilepsy, there are also factors that increase the chance of having a seizure if you already have epilepsy including:

  • Certain medications

  • Illness

  • Lack of sleep

  • Pregnancy

  • Strong emotion

  • Use of alcohol or other drugs and substance withdrawal

How is epilepsy treated?

There is no cure for epilepsy. It is possible, however, to control the symptoms with medications, surgery or electrical stimulation. Medications are the most common form of treatment. In most cases, you can lead a normal life with epilepsy.

Treatments for epilepsy

Treatments for epilepsy are aimed at controlling or reducing the number of seizures experienced and in clued:

  • Changes in diet to prevent seizures associated with certain types of epilepsy, especially in children

  • Electrical stimulation to interfere with abnormal electrical activity

  • Medications to control abnormal electrical activity in the brain and prevent muscle spasms

  • Surgery to remove the epileptic focus (part of the brain where abnormal electrical activity originates)

  • Therapy, such as counseling or psychological therapy, to help you cope with the difficulties of epilepsy

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people in their efforts to deal with epilepsy. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

What are the potential complications of epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a serious disorder that can have a profound impact on your ability to perform daily activities and on your mood and emotions. Complications of untreated or poorly controlled epilepsy can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of epilepsy include:

  • Absenteeism from work or school

  • Behavioral and emotional problems

  • Brain damage

  • Injury during seizure

  • Loss of independence

  • Pulmonary aspiration (inhaling blood, vomited material, or other substances into lungs)

  • Status epilepticus (recurrent seizures without recovery)

  • Withdrawal or depression

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 25
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. NINDS epilepsy information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/epilepsy/epilepsy.htm.
  2. Epilepsy. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/epilepsy.html
  3. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.