What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a dysfunction of the central nervous system. With epilepsy, the activity in the brain becomes abnormal, with a disruption in the normal pattern of neurological activity. This can cause seizures, odd emotions, irregular behavior, and in some cases convulsions, and loss of consciousness.
Neurons in the brain work by sending electrochemical charges from one cell to another. These messages are called action potentials. This electrical activity given off by the brain activity is called a “brainwave.” Brain waves produce certain thoughts, feelings, and actions. They essentially control how we live and react to certain things. In epilepsy, a neuron may fire as many as 500 times per second. This is much faster than in a normally functioning brain. In some epileptic patients, this increased firing could happen only now and then. Others may be affected hundreds of times within a day.
Anyone can develop epilepsy at any time. The severity of seizures can vary from person to person, however, there are two main types of seizures.
As noted, how bad a seizure is can vary. They can range from a few seconds of unawareness to full on muscles spasms and twitching. Many people have no memory of a seizure happening. Some things may trigger seizures. These include:
Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the world. It affects around 65 million people, with 3.4 million of them being in the United States. Though anyone can develop epilepsy, it is most common in young children and elderly people. Also, there are slightly more men than women who have epilepsy.
For some, death from epilepsy is a real concern. Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is a risk for some. Though death can occur from injuries caused by seizures such as drowning, other deaths are from epilepsy specifically. According to the CDC, death of 1.16 for every 1,000 epilepsy patients happen each year, though these estimates can vary.
Symptoms can also vary depending on the type of seizure being experienced.
What are the Symptoms of Epilepsy?
The main symptoms of epilepsy are seizures. These symptoms are different for everyone as differing seizures are experienced.
There are six different types of generalized seizures:
Tonic-clonic seizures: This is the most severe type of seizure where the body will stiffen, jerk and shake. Loss of consciousness, and loss of bladder and bowel control could occur as well. These seizures usually last between 1-3 minutes. Longer than this and emergency services may be needed as breathing problems can occur.
Clonic seizures: Jerking muscle spasms that affect the face, neck, arms and legs often last several minutes with these seizures.
Tonic seizures: These seizures are most common in those who have Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, which is a type of epilepsy. These seizures will make the muscles in the arms, trunk or legs tense up, and typically only last about 20 seconds. Tonic seizures often happen while asleep, but if the person is standing up they may lose their balance and risk falling.
Atonic seizures: During these seizures, the muscles will go limp and the head may droop forward. Those who are prone to having these seizures will sometimes wear a helmet to protect their head due to the risk of falling. These usually last about 15 seconds, however some people can have several of these seizures one after the other.
Myoclonic seizures: These seizures can start in the same area of the brain as atonic seizures. Those who suffer from these may also suffer from atonic seizures as well. This seizure is more of a sudden jerk akin to being electrically shocked.
Absence seizures: These seizures don’t include any jerking or convulsing, but leave the person in an unresponsive state. They may not respond to attempts at communicating and will stare blankly. The eyes may roll back in the head. These usually only last a few seconds and are most common in young children.
These have been put into three different groups: Simple focal, complex focal, and secondary generalized.
For most people, the cause of epilepsy remains unclear. There are many things that could lead to a seizure including brain injury, lack of oxygen to the brain, Alzheimer’s or dementia, infectious diseases or a very high fever. Genetics can even be a cause of epilepsy for some. The chance of getting epilepsy is about 1 percent. However, if you have a parent who suffers from epilepsy, the chance of developing the disorder goes up to 2 to 5 percent.
If you experience seizures it could be helpful to keep a journal of when these seizures happen so that your doctor can better diagnose and treat your disorder.
How is Epilepsy Diagnosed?
Depending on your medical history and current health, your doctor will determine what tests would be appropriate for you. It is always best to see a doctor as soon as you can after having a seizure as it could indicate a more serious illness.
Certain tests can be done to help diagnose epilepsy, but often certain tests are done to rule out any other illness that may be present.
A typical evaluation for seizures could include:
All of these tests help doctors to better diagnose epilepsy and rule out if there may be any underlying reasons for seizures. There is currently no cure for epilepsy, but certain medications and treatments are available to help manage the symptoms.
How is Epilepsy Treated?
Treatment for epilepsy can sometimes be tricky. Areas in which the seizures affect differ, as does the success rate on certain medications for certain patients. Generally, though, most people can manage their epilepsy symptoms.
Some treatments include:
Many people suffer from epilepsy, and it can be no small feat to live with the effects. There is, unfortunately, no current cure for epilepsy, however having an open line of communication with your physician can help you find the best treatment option. Treatments have varying results, but almost everyone can find something to help manage their symptoms so that they can regain their quality of life.
If you are experiencing seizures, notify a trusted physician as soon as possible to get the help you need.