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What is Epilepsy?

 

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Epilepsy is a chronic disorder that causes unprovoked, recurrent seizures. A seizure is a sudden rush of electrical activity in the brain.

There are two main types of seizures. Generalized seizures affect the whole brain. Focal, or partial seizures, affect just one part of the brain.

A mild seizure may be difficult to recognize. It can last a few seconds during which you lack awareness.

Stronger seizures can cause spasms and uncontrollable muscle twitches, and can last a few seconds to several minutes. During a stronger seizure, some people become confused or lose consciousness. Afterward you may have no memory of it happening.

There are several reasons you might have a seizure. These include:

  • high fever
  • head trauma
  • very low blood sugar
  • alcohol withdrawal

Symptoms

Because epilepsy is caused by abnormal activity in the brain, seizures can affect any process your brain coordinates. Seizure signs and symptoms may include:

  • Temporary confusion
  • A staring spell
  • Uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs
  • Loss of consciousness or awareness
  • Psychic symptoms such as fear, anxiety or deja vu

Symptoms vary depending on the type of seizure. In most cases, a person with epilepsy will tend to have the same type of seizure each time, so the symptoms will be similar from episode to episode.

Doctors generally classify seizures as either focal or generalized, based on how the abnormal brain activity begins.

Focal seizures

When seizures appear to result from abnormal activity in just one area of your brain, they’re called focal (partial) seizures. These seizures fall into two categories:

Focal seizures without loss of consciousness. Once called simple partial seizures, these seizures don’t cause a loss of consciousness. They may alter emotions or change the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound. They may also result in involuntary jerking of a body part, such as an arm or leg, and spontaneous sensory symptoms such as tingling, dizziness and flashing lights.

Focal seizures with impaired awareness. Once called complex partial seizures, these seizures involve a change or loss of consciousness or awareness. During a complex partial seizure, you may stare into space and not respond normally to your environment or perform repetitive movements, such as hand rubbing, chewing, swallowing or walking in circles.

Symptoms of focal seizures may be confused with other neurological disorders, such as migraine, narcolepsy or mental illness. A thorough examination and testing are needed to distinguish epilepsy from other disorders.

Generalized seizures

Seizures that appear to involve all areas of the brain are called generalized seizures. Six types of generalized seizures exist.

Absence seizures. Absence seizures, previously known as petit mal seizures, often occur in children and are characterized by staring into space or subtle body movements such as eye blinking or lip smacking. These seizures may occur in clusters and cause a brief loss of awareness.

Tonic seizures. Tonic seizures cause stiffening of your muscles. These seizures usually affect muscles in your back, arms and legs and may cause you to fall to the ground.

Atonic seizures. Atonic seizures, also known as drop seizures, cause a loss of muscle control, which may cause you to suddenly collapse or fall down.

Clonic seizures. Clonic seizures are associated with repeated or rhythmic, jerking muscle movements. These seizures usually affect the neck, face and arms.

Myoclonic seizures. Myoclonic seizures usually appear as sudden brief jerks or twitches of your arms and legs.

Tonic-clonic seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures, previously known as grand mal seizures, are the most dramatic type of epileptic seizure and can cause an abrupt loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, and sometimes loss of bladder control or biting your tongue.

What triggers an epileptic seizure?

Some people are able to identify things or situations that can trigger seizures.

A few of the most commonly reported triggers are:

  • lack of sleep
  • illness or fever
  • stress
  • bright lights, flashing lights, or patterns
  • caffeine, alcohol, medicines, or drugs
  • skipping meals, overeating, or specific food ingredients

Identifying triggers isn’t always easy. A single incident doesn’t always mean something is a trigger. It’s often a combination of factors that trigger a seizure.

A good way to find your triggers is to keep a seizure journal. After each seizure, note the following:

  • day and time
  • what activity you were involved in
  • what was happening around you
  • unusual sights, smells, or sounds
  • unusual stressors
  • what you were eating or how long it had been since you’d eaten
  • your level of fatigue and how well you slept the night before

You can also use your seizure journal to determine if your medications are working. Note how you felt just before and just after your seizure, and any side effects.

Bring the medical history with you when you visit the doctor. It may be useful in adjusting your medications or exploring other treatments.

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