Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes people to have recurring seizures. The seizures happen when clusters of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain send out the wrong signals.

People may have strange sensations and emotions or behave strangely. They may have violent muscle spasms or lose consciousness.

Epilepsy has many possible causes, including illness, brain injury, and abnormal brain development. In many cases, the cause is unknown.

Doctors use brain scans and other tests to diagnose epilepsy. It is important to start treatment right away. There is no cure for epilepsy, but medicines can control seizures for most people. When medicines are not working well, surgery or implanted devices such as vagus nerve stimulators may help. Special diets can help some children with epilepsy.

There is no known way to prevent epilepsy. Proper diet and sleep, and staying away from illegal drugs and alcohol may decrease the likelihood of triggering seizures in people with epilepsy.

Reduce the risk of head injury by wearing helmets during risky activities. This can lessen the likelihood of a brain injury that leads to seizures and epilepsy.

Epilepsy may be due to a medical condition or injury that affects the brain. Or the cause may be unknown (idiopathic).

Common causes of epilepsy include:
  • Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Dementia, such as Alzheimer disease
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Infections, including brain abscess, meningitis, encephalitis, and HIV/AIDS
  • Brain problems that are present at birth (congenital brain defect)
  • Brain injury that occurs during or near birth
  • Metabolism disorders present at birth (such as phenylketonuria)
  • Brain tumor
  • Abnormal blood vessels in the brain
  • Other illness that damages or destroys brain tissue
Epileptic seizures usually begin between ages 5 and 20. But they can happen at any age. There may be a family history of seizures or epilepsy.

Symptoms vary from person to person. Some people may have simple staring spells. Others have violent shaking and loss of alertness. The type of seizure depends on the part of the brain that is affected.

Most of the time, the seizure is similar to the one before it. Some people with epilepsy have a strange sensation before each seizure. Sensations may be tingling, smelling an odor that is not actually there, or emotional changes. This is called an aura.

Your doctor can tell you more about the specific type of seizure you may have:
  • Absence (petit mal) seizure (staring spells)
  • Generalized tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure (involves the entire body, including aura, rigid muscles, and loss of alertness)
  • Partial (focal) seizure (can involve any of the symptoms described above, depending on where in the brain the seizure starts)

Some people with epilepsy may be able to reduce or even stop their anti-seizure medicines after having no seizures for several years. Certain types of childhood epilepsy go away or improve with age, usually in the late teens or 20s.

For many people, epilepsy is a lifelong condition. In these cases, anti-seizure drugs need to be continued. There is a very low risk of sudden death with epilepsy.