Overview and Facts
Epilepsy, a neurological condition, is also known as a seizure disorder, as it is characterized by the tendency to have seizures. In epilepsy, a cluster of nerve cells in the brain start to signal abnormally and the normal pattern of neuronal activity becomes disturbed. This can cause strange emotions and behaviors and sometimes convulsions and spasms.
Epilepsy can develop at any age. About 2.7 million Americans have received epilepsy treatment in the past five years. It is more common in men than women.
What is a seizure?
A seizure is a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain that affects how a person feels or acts. Seizures are not a disease but rather a symptom of different disorders that can affect the brain. Some seizures are very mild and hardly noticed, while others are completely disabling to the person experiencing them.
Signs and Symptoms
Seizures, a sudden alteration of behavior due to abnormal electrical functioning in the brain, are the key symptom of epilepsy, though not everyone who has seizures has epilepsy. Epileptic seizures take on a different form and affect people in different ways. They tend to have a beginning, middle and end and there are symptoms in each phase that identify seizures. Not every person will experience all of the following seizures symptoms.
Early seizure symptoms – when an individual is aware of the beginning of a seizure, it can be thought of as a warning. However, the person may not be aware and thus have no warning. The following are symptoms that are a warning that a seizure could occur:
- Experiencing deja vu
- Heightened senses of smell, taste and hearing
- Strange, tingling feelings
- Vision loss or blurring
- Feeling fear or panic
- Feeling very pleasant
Middle stage seizure symptoms – this phase of a seizure can take on different forms. For those who had warnings, it may simply continue or turn into a convulsion or complex partial seizure. For those with no warning, the seizure may continue as a partial seizure or evolve into a convulsion. The following are symptoms that could be experienced in the middle of a seizure:
- Black out
- Out of body experience
- Electric shock feeling
- Difficulty talking
- Inability to move
- Chewing movements
- Foot stomping
- Teeth clenching
- Eyelid fluttering or eyes rolling up
- Tongue biting
- Trouble breathing
End to a seizure – this is the transition from the seizure back to a person’s normal state. It is the ‘post-ictal period’ and signifies the brain’s recovery period. Depending on which parts of the brain were affected by the epileptic seizure, this process could take a few seconds, minutes or even hours. Other symptoms during this period include:
- Memory loss
- Writing difficulty
- Difficulty talking
- Urge to urinate/defecate
Causes and Diagnosis
The cause of epilepsy is unknown for about half of those who suffer from it. For the other half, reasons vary for different people of different ages. Children can be born with a structural brain defect, or they may experience a head injury that can cause epilepsy. For young adults, head injuries are the most common cause. In middle-aged adults, strokes, tumors and injuries are a more frequent cause. For those over 65, stroke is the most common cause of epilepsy. Overall, anything that disturbs the normal pattern of neuron activity in the brain can be one of the causes of seizures and thus epilepsy. Abnormality in the brain, chemical imbalances or a combination of factors can all play a role.
Not every person who has a seizure is epileptic. However, when a person has two or more seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy. When visiting a doctor for a diagnosis, the doctor will first examine the person’s medical history and ask a variety of questions relevant to the patient’s seizures. The most common diagnostic test for epilepsy is an electroencephalogram (EEG) test. This test records electrical impulses in the brain. In order to do this, electrodes are placed on the scalp to pick up the electric signals, which are then transmitted to a polygraph to record the activity.
Risk factors for epilepsy include:
- Brain injuries (bleeding, lack of oxygen, infections)
- Babies born with abnormal brain structures
- Brain tumors
- Babies who have seizures in the first month
- Mental handicaps
- Cerebral palsy
- Family history
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Using illegal drugs such as cocaine
Tests and Treatment Options
After a person is diagnosed with epilepsy, it is crucial to begin epileptic treatment as soon as possible. There is no cure for epilepsy, but in most cases, seizures can be controlled via medicines and surgical procedures and can eventually go away.
Many seizure medicines are available to treat epilepsy. Certain ones work differently for different kinds of people and seizures. A doctor will choose a medicine based on the type and severity of seizure, a person’s age and whether other medical conditions already exist. Seizure medications should be taken every day as your doctor prescribes them. If the proper amount is not taken at the right time, the medicine is less likely to prevent epileptic seizures.
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
There are certain triggers that an epileptic person can watch for that can prevent seizures from happening or reduce their frequency. These triggers include:
- Lack of sleep
- Heavy alcohol usage
- Missing prescribed seizure medication
- Menstrual cycle
- Other prescription medications or supplements that may reduce the effectiveness of seizure medicines
- Using cocaine or ecstasy
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Some alternative epileptic treatments are believed by some to be effective in epilepsy treatment. These include the following:
- Herbal medicines
- Relaxation therapy
- Dietary therapy