Evaluating patients with epilepsy is aimed at determining what type of seizures they are having and their cause. Various seizure types respond best to specific treatments. The diagnosis of epilepsy is based on:
The patient's medical history, including any family history of seizures, associated medical conditions, and current medications. Also helpful to the doctor is the input of people who have witnessed a patient's seizures, especially if there is a loss of consciousness. Some important questions a patient will be asked include:
At what age did the seizures begin?
What circumstances surrounded your first seizure?
What factors seem to bring on the seizures?
What do you feel before, during, and after the seizures?
How long do the seizures last?
Have you been treated for epilepsy before?
What medications were prescribed and in what dosages?
Symptoms of seizures vary widely, depending on the part of the brain affected by the electrical misfiring. If a very small part of the brain is affected, you might sense only an odd smell or taste. In other cases, you could have hallucinations or convulsions, or you could lose consciousness.
Generalized tonic-clonic. This type of seizure is sometimes preceded by an aura (awareness of a strange odor, taste, or vision). You might lose consciousness, fall, and experience muscle rigidity (stiffness)...
*An important part of the diagnostic process is the electroencephalogram (EEG), because it is the only test that directly detects electrical activity in the brain, and seizures are defined by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. During an EEG, electrodes (small metal disks) are attached to specific locations on your head. The electrodes are attached to a monitor to record the brain's electrical activity. The EEG is useful not only to confirm a diagnosis of epilepsy, but also to determine the type of epilepsy.
A routine EEG only records about 20-30 minutes of brain waves (however, the entire EEG procedure takes about 90 minutes). Because 30 minutes is such a short amount of time, the results of routine EEG studies are often normal, even in people known to have epilepsy. Therefore, prolonged EEG monitoring may be necessary. Some monitors allow the patient to stay at home and continue his or her normal activities.
Prolonged EEG-video monitoring is another diagnostic method. During this type of monitoring, an EEG monitors the brain's activity and cameras videotape body movements and behavior during a seizure. Prolonged monitoring often requires the patient to spend time in a special hospital facility for several days.