What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition involving the brain that makes people more susceptible to having recurrent unprovoked seizures. It is one of the most common disorders of the nervous system and affects people of all ages, races and ethnic background. Having just one seizure is not considered to be epilepsy — about half the people who have one seizure never have another seizure.

Epilepsy is not one single condition. There are a range of different conditions that can cause seizures.

Anything that interrupts the normal connections between nerve cells in the brain can cause a seizure; this includes a high fever, low blood sugar, alcohol or drug withdrawal, or a brain concussion. Under these circumstances, anyone can have one or more seizures. However, when a person has two or more recurrent unprovoked seizures, he or she is considered to have epilepsy. There are many possible causes of epilepsy, including an imbalance of nerve-signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters, tumors, strokes, and brain damage from illness or injury, or some combination of these. In the majority of cases, there may be no detectable cause for epilepsy

What is a Seizure?

Seizures are caused by sudden and uncoordinated changes to electrical signals in the brain. This can cause temporary (short-term) changes in behaviours, feelings, movements (such as sudden stiffening and jerking of the arms and legs), or a loss of awareness or changed awareness level. Epilepsy occurs when you have recurrent seizures.

What Are the Different Types of Seizures?

There are many different types of seizures. Generalised seizures involve the whole brain and so the whole body is affected. Focal seizures involve only part of the brain.

Generalised tonic-clonic seizures

Previously known as ‘grand mal seizures’, these types of seizures are the most well recognised. The seizure starts with a sudden loss of consciousness, the body then becomes stiff followed by jerking of the muscles. Turning red or blue, tongue-biting and loss of bladder control are common. Confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, headache and agitation can happen on regaining consciousness.

Absence seizures

Absence seizures were previously known as ‘petit mal seizures’, these types of seizures usually start in childhood, but can happen in adults. These seizures are brief and involve staring, loss of expression, unresponsiveness and stopping activity. Sometimes eye blinking or upward eye movements are seen. The person usually recovers straight away and continues their previous activity, without remembering the seizure.

Focal seizures

Previously known as ‘partial seizures’, start in one area of the brain and affect the parts of the body controlled by that area of the brain. The seizure may involve unusual movements, feelings, sensations, or behaviours. People can have different levels of consciousness during focal seizures.

Febrile convulsions

Febrile convulsions are common seizures that happen in about 3 in 100 healthy children up to 6 years old. The seizures are associated with an illness causing a fever, like a viral infection and are generally harmless.

This is usually dealt with by treating the seizure if necessary, and treating the cause of the fever.

Children who have febrile convulsions have a similar risk of developing epilepsy to most people, if they don’t have any other risk factors for epilepsy.

What causes Epilepsy?

Seizures or epilepsy can also be caused by anything that damages the brain, like:

The cause of epilepsy is unknown in half of all cases. We know that genetics (family history) play an important role.

● head injury or trauma

● stroke or brain haemorrhage (bleed)

● brain infection or inflammation, like meningitisencephalitis or a brain abscess

● brain malformations or tumours

● brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease

● chronic alcohol or drug use

● high or low blood sugar and other biochemical imbalances

How is Epilepsy treated?

Most people with epilepsy can control their seizures with antiepileptic medicines and by avoiding triggers. The type of medicines you need depends on things like how old you are and what types of seizures you are having. Many antiepileptic medicines need blood tests to make sure the levels of medicine in your blood are not too low or too high or cause other medical problems.

Some new treatments for epilepsy are being studied. These include:

● surgery on the area of the brain causing the seizures

● vagus nerve stimulation — nerves in the neck are stimulated by a device placed under the skin

● a strict medically supervised diet in some children with epilepsy, called a ketogenic diet

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