What is epilepsy?

Find Out What Symptoms To Look For And How To Get The Right Treatment

Violent shaking. Convulsions. Loss of alertness. If you’ve ever experienced these symptoms, you know how scary they can be. For more than three million Americans living with epilepsy, these symptoms are always lurking around the corner.

Of the major chronic medical conditions, epilepsy is among the least understood, even though it affects 50 million people worldwide and is the third most common neurological disorder in the U.S. after Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. It usually affects children under the age of 15 and people over the age of 65. But it can strike at any age.

What is epilepsy?

“Epilepsy is a medical condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical functions,” said Scott & White neurologist, Batool F. Kirmani, MD. “When a person has two or more unprovoked seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy.”

Epilepsy is a chronic and unpredictable neurological condition characterized by intermittent electrical and chemical disturbances in the brain. The resulting seizures can affect awareness, movement and sensation.

Some sufferers have even reported that they know when a seizure is coming because they smell something in the room that isn’t there or feel a strange tingling in their body.

What causes epilepsy?

When permanent changes in brain tissue affect the brain, it sends out abnormal signals, causing a seizure. This change can be due to a medical condition or an injury.

Here are some common causes of epilepsy:

  • Stroke
  • Dementia
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Infections of the brain, including abscess, meningitis, encephalitis or AIDS
  • Congenital (present at birth) brain defect
  • Injury to the brain during or near birth
  • Metabolism disorder
  • Brain tumor
  • Abnormal blood vessels in brain

“When seizures start, the physician will try to identify the underlying [cause],” Dr. Kirmani said. “Proper therapy and prognosis will depend on the cause.”

However, in some cases the cause of the patient’s seizures is not identifiable.

“If a specific diagnosis of the cause cannot be made, then the epilepsy will be described according to seizure type or epilepsy syndrome,” she said.

What are the symptoms of epilepsy?

The clearest sign of epilepsy is having a seizure. But seizures come in many forms.

“Seizures can be convulsions, brief stares, muscle spasms, odd sensations or episodes of automatic behavior or altered consciousness,” Dr. Kirmani said.

Sometimes it is not clear to the people around the patient that they are having a seizure. Patients experiencing a petit mal seizure may have rapid blinking or stare into space.

While a person having a complex partial seizure, will appear confused or dazed and unable to respond to questions for several minutes.

The most obvious type of seizure is the tonic-clonic or grand mal seizure. A patient experiencing this type of seizure might cry out, lose consciousness or have rigid muscles and jerks, followed by a period of confusion and fatigue.

How is epilepsy treated?

If the condition is caused by a correctable brain condition, then doctors may suggest doing surgery to remove the damaged tissue.

But if the cause of the epilepsy is unidentifiable or cannot be corrected with surgery, then anti-seizure medication, or anticonvulsants, will be prescribed to reduce the number of future seizures.

“If drugs are not successful, other methods may be tried, including a special diet or vagus nerve stimulation (VNS),” Dr. Kirmani said.

“Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a type of treatment in which short bursts of electrical energy are directed into the brain via the vagus nerve, a large nerve in the neck. The energy come from a battery…which is surgically implanted under the skin…The physician programs the device to deliver small electrical stimulation bursts every few minutes…”1

The goal of all epilepsy treatment is to prevent further seizures, avoid side effects, and make it possible for people to lead active lives, Dr. Kirmani said.

For more information about epilepsy visit cdc.gov or epilepsyfoundation.org. If you have epileptic symptoms or are concerned about brain-related issues, contact one of Scott & White’s neurologists.

1                      (2012)Vagus Nerve Stimulation Therapy.

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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What is epilepsy?