Epilepsy Facts

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Epilepsy is a neurologic disorder that causes frequent seizures.

Epilepsy affects 3 million people, and more than 300,000 children younger than 14 have it. Some children eventually grow out it, but many children who are diagnosed with epilepsy continue to have seizures into adulthood. Seizure disorders like epilepsy may run in families.

Seizures are sudden, uncontrollable events that occur when the brain sends out abnormal electrical signals to the body. A person may feel sudden fear, anger, or panic or may notice changes in the way things looks, sound, smell, or feel before a seizure. After the seizure is over, weakness or confusion are common. Although epilepsy can't be cured, it can be controlled with medication.

Doctors don't know what causes epilepsy in 70% of cases. For the rest, the cause is related to something that affects how the brain works, such as head injuries, lack of oxygen during birth, or problems in brain development before birth, brain tumors, genetic conditions, infections like meningitis or encephalitis, and lead poisoning.

Some of the most common triggers for epileptic seizures include the following:

  • Changes in sleep patterns, especially not getting enough sleep. It helps to follow a regular sleep schedule.

  • Not taking medicine as recommended. Many people with epilepsy take medicine to control seizures. Over time, some people are able to stop their medicine, but this should only be done with a doctor's approval.

  • Alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking can cause seizures.

  • Too much stress. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, may help.

  • Flashing lights. About 5% of people with epilepsy are sensitive to some types of flickering lights.

The full extent of the seizure may not be completely understood immediately after symptoms occur, but may be revealed with a full medical evaluation and diagnostic testing. And having a seizure may not mean a person has epilepsy. To confirm a diagnosis, a doctor may recommend several tests.

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): records the brain's continuous electrical activity using electrodes attached to the scalp.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan): uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body.

  • Lumbar puncture: requires that a special needle be placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.

Epilepsy is often treated with drugs that prevent seizures. When medications aren't successful, doctors may perform surgery to remove the areas of the brain in which seizures occur. Sometimes a specialized diet very high in fats and very low in carbohydrates is recommended. This diet has been found to be particularly effective for treating children with epilepsy.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Apr 16
NINDS Epilepsy Information Page. National Institutes of Health.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/epilepsy/epilepsy.htm

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  • The symptom that defines epilepsy is recurrent seizures, which are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
  • While there is no cure for epilepsy, it is possible to control the symptoms with medications, surgery or electrical stimulation.
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  • If your epilepsy treatment works just fine, there’s no reason to tinker with it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the old wives’ tale goes. But if you’re having difficulty treating your epilepsy or are dissatisfied with the treatment, it may be time to consider switching to another one. For some, a new medication or set of medications may be just the ticket, while for others, surgery may be the best route.
  • If you’ve been diagnosed with epilepsy, you’re not alone. It’s the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States. But not everyone with epilepsy experiences the same types of seizures or the same number of seizures. Over the years, researchers have tried to come up with ways of measuring how severe someone’s epilepsy is. For example, adults who are diagnosed with epilepsy may be measured with the Liverpool Seizure Severity Scale, but children may be assessed with information based on the Early Childhood Epilepsy Severity Scale (E-Chess). Regardless of the method or scale used, this information helps your neurologist plot the course of your treatment. But aside from the scales, what’s most important to you is how you understand your own epilepsy.
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