Epilepsy is a neurological condition in which an individual has recurrent seizures. It is also commonly referred to as seizure disorder. A seizure occurs when the nerve cells in the brain create signals in an unusual or excessive manner. Symptoms can range from involuntary movements to more mild changes in what the person feels or see. They can last from a few seconds to a few minutes.
The exact cause of epilepsy can be hard to pin down. In most people with epilepsy, there is no specific cause, and the disorder may be genetic. Other times, head injuries, stroke, brain infections or oxygen deprivation can lead to the development of epilepsy. It can develop early or later in life, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 2 million adults and about a half-million children have epilepsy.
Symptoms of Epilepsy
The severity and general nature of epilepsy can vary quite a bit from person to person. For some, the symptoms are quite mild and occur rarely, with people experiencing just a momentary disruption in one or more senses, for example. Others with epilepsy experience a loss of consciousness or appear to be staring off into space for a short period of time. And then there are full-body convulsions that are often considered seizures. People can also experience more than one type of seizure, and the frequency of seizures varies from person to person.
Most seizures are treated with antiepileptic drugs. A variety of drugs are now available, and doctors may have a patient try one while carefully monitoring the person to determine the drug's effectiveness as well as the side effects. It often takes a few attempts to find the right medication or combination of medications to control seizures.
In instances where seizures originate in one very specific part of the brain, called the “seizure focus, ” surgery to remove the seizure focus may be an option. Other possibilities for epilepsy treatment include electrical nerve stimulation and a diet known as the ketogenic diet.
SOURCES: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Epilepsy Foundation
Two drugs prescribed to prevent seizures and treat migraine may increase the risk of birth defects if taken early in pregnancy.