Epilepsy: Symptoms, causes, and treatments

People with epilepsy experience recurrent seizures, because a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain causes a temporary disturbance in the messaging systems between brain cells.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe epilepsy as “a common neurological condition characterized by recurrent seizures.”

This article will explain the types, symptoms, treatment, and prognosis of epilepsy.

Fast facts on epilepsy

Here are some key points about epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder.

Primary symptoms commonly include seizures.

Seizures have a range of severity depending on the individual.

Treatments include anti-seizure medications.

Epilepsy symptoms

PET (positron emission tomography) scan of the brain
Epilepsy is a neurological condition.

The main symptom of epilepsy is repeated seizures. If one or more of the following symptoms are present, the individual should see a doctor, especially if they recur:

a convulsion with no temperature (no fever)

short spells of blackout, or confused memory

intermittent fainting spells, during which bowel or bladder control is lost, which is frequently followed by extreme tiredness

for a short period, the person is unresponsive to instructions or questions

the person becomes stiff, suddenly, for no apparent reason

the person suddenly falls for no clear reason

sudden bouts of blinking without apparent stimuli

sudden bouts of chewing, without any apparent reason

for a short time the person seems dazed and unable to communicate

repetitive movements that seem inappropriate

the person becomes fearful for no apparent reason; they may even panic or become angry

peculiar changes in senses, such as smell, touch, and sound

the arms, legs, or body jerk, in babies these will appear as a cluster of rapid jerking movements

The following conditions need to be eliminated. They may present similar symptoms and are sometimes misdiagnosed as epilepsy:

high fever with epilepsy-like symptoms

fainting

narcolepsy, or recurring episodes of sleep during the day

cataplexy, or periods of extreme muscle weakness

sleep disorders

nightmares

panic attacks

fugue states, a rare psychiatric disorder

psychogenic seizures

Epilepsy on tablet screen
A person with epilepsy will have recurrent seizures.

Every function in the human body is triggered by messaging systems in our brain. Epilepsy results when this system is disrupted due to faulty electrical activity.

In many cases, the exact cause is not known. Some people have inherited genetic factors that make epilepsy more likely to occur.

Other factors that may increase the risk include:

head trauma, for instance, during a car crash

brain conditions, including stroke or tumors

infectious diseases, for instance, AIDS and viral encephalitis

prenatal injury, or brain damage that occurs before birth

developmental disorders, for instance, autism or neurofibromatosis

It is most likely to appear in children under 2 years of age, and adults over 65 years.

What a patient with epilepsy experiences during a seizure will depend on which part of the brain is affected, and how widely and quickly it spreads from that area.

The CDC note that the condition “is not well understood.” Often, no specific cause can be identified.

Is epilepsy common?

In 2015, epilepsy affected 1.2 percent of the population in the United States, or 3.4 million people, including 3 million adults and 470,000 children.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that epilepsy affects 50 million people worldwide.

Epilepsy treatments

There is currently no cure for most types of epilepsy. However, surgery can stop some kinds of seizure from occurring, and in many cases, the condition can be managed.

If an underlying correctable brain condition is causing the seizures, sometimes surgery can stop them. If epilepsy is diagnosed, the doctor will prescribe seizure-preventing drugs or anti-epileptic drugs.

If drugs do not work, the next option could be surgery, a special diet or VNS (vagus nerve stimulation).

The doctor’s aim is to prevent further seizures from occurring, while at the same time avoiding side effects so that the patient can lead a normal, active, and productive life.

Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs)

The majority of AEDs are taken orally. The type of seizure the patient is having will decide which drug the doctor may prescribe. Patients do not all react in the same way to drugs, but AEDs appear to help control seizures in 70 percent of cases.

Drugs commonly used to treat epilepsy include:

sodium valproate

carbamazepine

lamotrigine

levetiracetam

Some drugs may stop seizures in one patient, but not in another. Even when the right drug is found, it can take some time to find the ideal dose.

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Types of epileptic seizures

There are three diagnoses a doctor might make when treating a patient with epileptic seizures:

Idiopathic: There is no apparent cause.

Cryptogenic: The doctor thinks there is most probably a cause, but cannot pinpoint it.

Symptomatic: The doctor knows what the cause is.

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