What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy, sometimes called a seizure disorder, is a chronic neurological disorder in which your brain goes through abnormal activity that triggers a seizure. Seizures are the main indicator of epilepsy, with each episode lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.
In the United States, epilepsy is one of the most common disorders affecting the brain, and it can affect all ages and genders equally. In fact, about 5.1 million Americans have a history of epilepsy, and 3.4 million have active epilepsy, in which they experience repeat seizure episodes.
Epilepsy affects people in different ways, and it may result in unintentional movement on one side of the body, both sides, or no movement at all. There are many types of epilepsy and seizures, so it's important to know the signs and symptoms, and the best ways to handle this disorder.
Signs and symptoms of epilepsy
Since epilepsy isn't just one disease, it can have a variety of symptoms. You may experience seizure warning signs such as:
Symptoms of a seizure may include:
- Uncontrollable twitching and jerking
- Muscle spasms
- Loss of consciousness
- Staring spells
- Temporary confusion
- Unusual sensations
- Changes in mood
In general, doctors group symptoms into two broad categories based on body movement: focal and generalized.
Symptoms of focal seizures
Focal seizures, also called partial seizures, affect one part of the brain. You might experience twitching, weak muscles, rigid muscles, or body spasms. You may start doing repetitive movements like lip smacking, clapping, or rubbing hands together. Along with these symptoms, you may have goosebumps or a racing heart, or may experience changes in mood or thinking.
Symptoms of generalized seizures
Generalized seizures affect both sides of the brain at the same time. Your body movements are similar to those of focal seizures, but you may also experience spasms in your entire body. For non-motor symptoms, you may have staring spells or twitches in the eyelids or elsewhere.
Causes of epilepsy
Some types of genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome, Dravet syndrome, Unverricht-Lundborg disease, and Lafora disease, can cause epileptic episodes. These conditions either begin at birth or during childhood, with seizures as an early symptom.
Neurological conditions like Alzheimer's disease, cerebral palsy, and autism spectrum disorder can lead to epilepsy. In children, about 20% of all developmental neurological conditions can result in epileptic seizures.
Babies can develop epilepsy if they experienced damage to the brain before birth. Some types of damage include getting poor nutrition, being deprived of oxygen, and getting an infection from the mother.
Infectious diseases like HIV, meningitis, and viral encephalitis can cause epileptic seizures. You might also develop epilepsy from infections that affect your brain. These can include bacterial infections, parasitic infections like malaria and neurocysticercosis, and viral infections like influenza, Zika, and dengue.
When to see the doctor for epilepsy
Experiencing a seizure can be frightening, so it's important to check in with your doctor. Call an ambulance or seek immediate medical help if you have a seizure and one or more of the following symptoms or conditions:
Your doctor will take note of your symptoms, along with any symptoms a friend or family member witnessed. They'll also order tests such as an electroencephalogram (EEG), a magnetoencephalogram (MEG), a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, or a computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan.
Treatments for epilepsy
Treatment for epilepsy and its seizures depends on the type and frequency of the condition. In most cases, doctors prefer treating with anti-seizure medication, with one medication prescribed at a time.
In addition, your doctor may recommend dietary changes depending on how you respond to the medication. Diets like the ketogenic diet, which is high-fat and low-carbohydrate, have shown good promise in reducing the number of seizures. Other diets, like Atkins and low-glycemic, may help too.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Frequently Asked Questions About Epilepsy."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Epilepsy Fast Facts."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Seizure First Aid."
Epilepsy Foundation: "Warning Signs of Seizures."
Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry: "Genetics of epilepsy."
Merck Manual: "Seizure Disorders."
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "The Epilepsies and Seizures: Hope Through Research."
The Oncologist: "Seizure Prognosis in Brain Tumors: New Insights and Evidence-Based Management."