What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a medical condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical functions. It’s also called a seizure disorder. When a person has two or more unprovoked seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy.
A seizure happens when a brief, strong surge of electrical activity affects part or all of the brain. One in 10 adults will have a seizure sometime during their life.
Seizures can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. They can have many symptoms, from convulsions and loss of consciousness to some that are not always recognized as seizures by the person experiencing them or by health care professionals: blank staring, lip smacking, or jerking movements of arms and legs.
Diagnosing epilepsy is a multi-step process, usually involving the following evaluations:
- Confirmation through patient history, neurological exam, and supporting blood and other clinical tests that the patient has epileptic seizures and not some other type of episode such as fainting, breath-holding (in children), transient ischemic attacks, hypoglycemia, or non-epileptic seizures.
- Identification of the type of seizure involved.
- Determination of whether the seizure disorder falls within a recognized syndrome.
- A clinical evaluation in search of the cause of the epilepsy.
- Based on all previous findings, selection of the most appropriate therapy.
Factors that increase an infant’s risk of developing epilepsy include:
- being small for his gestational age
- having a seizure in the first month of life
- having an irregular brain structure
- having cerebral palsy
- having an infection in the brain
- having a brain tumor
- suffering a brain injury
- not getting enough oxygen to the brain
- family history of epilepsy or fever-related seizures
- racing thoughts
- visual blurring
- blacking out
- teeth clenching
- eye movements
- muscle spasms
- a temporary pause in breathing
- memory loss
When the doctor has made a diagnosis of seizures or epilepsy, the next step is to select the best form of treatment. If the seizure was caused by an underlying correctable brain condition, surgery may stop seizures. If epilepsy — that is, a continuing tendency to have seizures — is diagnosed, the doctor will usually prescribe regular use of seizure-preventing medications. If drugs are not successful, other methods may be tried, including surgery, a special diet, complementary therapy or vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). The goal of all epilepsy treatment is to prevent further seizures, avoid side effects, and make it possible for people to lead active lives.