Epilepsy or “a seizure disorder” is a neurological condition that affects the central nervous system. The fourth most common neurological disorder, epilepsy affects approximately 3 million Americans (1 in 26) of all ages and races. A person is said to have epilepsy when they have experienced two or more unprovoked seizures that are separated by at least 24 hours or one unprovoked seizure and a probability of further seizures. One seizure may not mean that epilepsy is present.
Many aspects of epilepsy are still a mystery, but it is known that seizures are caused by disturbances in the electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can be the result of a brain injury or damage, genetics, infectious diseases, and developmental disorders, but often occur without a known cause. Learn more.
What Do Seizures Look Like?
Seizures can display differently in each person, but they generally fall under two types: primary generalized seizures and focal seizures (previously known as partial seizures). Primary generalized seizures involve both sides of the brain experiencing widespread electrical discharge. These seizures can occur in clusters and affect muscle control causing falling, jerking, or collapsing. The most dramatic primary generalized seizures are tonic-clonic seizures (previously known as grand mal seizures). These seizures usually last 1 to 3 minutes, result in loss of consciousness, loss of bladder control, body stiffening/shaking, biting of the tongue, and often require more time to recover.
Focal seizures are limited to single areas of the brain. These can be caused by brain injury such as stroke, tumor, and trauma, but often the cause is unknown. People having focal seizures may become nonresponsive, stare into space, experience a change in their senses, involuntary movement in limbs, repetitive movement, and may or may not lose consciousness or awareness. Learn more about seizures.
Is There Treatment?
For approximately 70% of individuals with epilepsy, there are treatments that can stop or control seizures. Doctors work closely with individual patients to explore the appropriate medication(s) to prescribe each unique seizure disorder. These medications are typically taken daily and over a long period of time; recurrence and remission of epilepsy often occurs across a person’s life span. Some seizure disorders are described as “drug resistant epilepsy” and medications do not effectively treat the condition. In these cases, brain surgery or stimulation, dietary therapy, vagus nerve therapy, and behavioral therapy may be successful treatment options; there are also research studies that explore new methods of seizure management and treatment. Unfortunately, for 30% of those with epilepsy, their seizures cannot be managed effectively by any of the currently available treatments. Many others experience side effects from their treatments that can impact their quality of life. Learn more about treatment.
In most cases, seizures end safely on their own, but sometimes more serious emergencies can arise. Learn more about SUDEP and other risks.