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Common Epilepsy Causes and Seizure Triggers

Epilepsy is a general term for the tendency to have seizures. Epilepsy is usually diagnosed only after a person has had more than one seizure.

When identifiable, the causes of epilepsy usually involve some form of injury to the brain. For most people, though, epilepsy's causes aren't known.

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Seizures and Epilepsy

A seizure occurs when a burst of electrical impulses in the brain escape their normal limits. They spread to neighboring areas and create an uncontrolled storm of electrical activity. The electrical impulses can be transmitted to the muscles, causing twitches or convulsions.

Causes of Epilepsy

There are around 180,000 new cases of epilepsy each year. About 30% occur in children. Children and elderly adults are the ones most often affected.

There is a clear cause for epilepsy in only a minority of the cases. Typically, the known causes of seizure involve some injury to the brain. Some of the main causes of epilepsy include:

  • low oxygen during birth
  • head injuries that occur during birth or from accidents during youth or adulthood
  • brain tumors
  • genetic conditions that result in brain injury, such as tuberous sclerosis
  • infections such as meningitis or encephalitis
  • stroke or any other type of damage to the brain
  • abnormal levels of substances such as sodium or blood sugar

In up to 70% of all case of epilepsy in adults and children, no cause can ever be discovered.

Causes of Seizures

Although the underlying causes of epilepsy are usually not known, certain factors are known to provoke seizures in people with epilepsy. Avoiding these triggers can help you avoid seizures and live better with epilepsy:

  • missing medication doses
  • heavy alcohol use
  • cocaine or other drug use, such as ecstasy
  • lack of sleep
  • other drugs that interfere with seizure medications

For about one out of every two women with epilepsy, seizures tend to occur more around the time of menstrual periods. Changing or adding certain drugs before menstrual periods can help.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on March 18, 2013
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