Epilepsy disrupts nerve cell activity in the brain and causes seizures. Epilepsy has various causes, including an abnormality in brain structure or wiring, an imbalance in nerve-signaling chemicals, or a change in brain cell features. While these seizure disorders are not yet completely understood, there are both genetic and non-genetic types of epilepsy. Genetics may be a contributing factor in even non-genetic epilepsy. Learn about epilepsy causes, symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.
people in the U.S. live with epilepsy
of patients diagnosed can control their seizures with medication and/or surgical intervention
For those with epilepsy, seizures occur as the result of a disruption in the electrical communication in the brain, whether due to an illness or infection, brain damage, brain tumor, or abnormal brain development. These seizures can look like changes in sensation, emotions, or behavior as well as convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness.
There are different types of seizure disorders associated with epilepsy, including mesial temporal lobe epilepsy, post-stroke or post-concussive epilepsy, and genetic or pediatric inherited epilepsy. Individual seizures are often classified based on where they begin. A focal, or partial, seizure begins with an electrical discharge in a localized area or one side of the brain, while a generalized seizure involves both sides.
For the six out of 10 people with non-genetic epilepsy, the cause of the disorder is unknown, though experts believe genetics can still play a role. In addition, people who have brain damage as the result of a stroke or traumatic brain injury may also have a higher risk for epilepsy. Research is currently exploring how certain infections, developmental and metabolic disorders, dementia, and other conditions may serve as a root cause of epilepsy.
Currently, about 3.4 million people in the U.S. live with epilepsy. One in 26 people in the U.S. will develop epilepsy while about 9% will experience a seizure. Epilepsy affects all ages and races, but the incidence is higher in children and older adults.
The primary symptom of epilepsy is recurrent seizures without a clear trigger. Epilepsy can also cause a person to experience strange sensations, emotions or mood shifts, and changes in motor function and behavior in addition to convulsions, muscle spasms, stiffness, changes in heart rate and breathing, and loss of consciousness. The symptoms and outcomes of each seizure or seizure cluster can range from severe and life-threatening to more benign in nature.
A person receives a diagnosis of epilepsy after having two or more unprovoked seizures—that is, not caused by a known medical condition—at least 24 hours apart. Brain scans such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) or tests that measure electrical activity in the brain such as electroencephalography (EEG) can assist with diagnosis.
While most seizures do not cause long-term damage to the brain, repetitive uncontrolled seizures may cause brain damage and contribute to behavioral or emotional changes. Patients with epilepsy may also be limited in their independence or the types of activities they can engage in, such as being unable to drive, because of the risk of seizures.
Appropriate treatment and prognosis depend on the cause of epilepsy and type of seizure. For about 70% of patients diagnosed with epilepsy, seizures can be controlled with medication and/or surgical intervention. However, for others, their seizures may not be responsive to medication. Specialized diets can also help control seizures, especially in cases when medication is ineffective or causes significant side effects. Neuromodulation devices, which stimulate nerves in the brain, can also be effective in preventing or reducing seizures by disrupting the abnormal brain activity leading up to a seizure.
While the frequency and severity of seizures can be managed through medication and surgical techniques, there is currently no cure for some forms of epilepsy. Additional research is needed to more effectively determine a seizure’s origin point and to predict and prevent seizures from occurring.
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