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Epilepsy Health Center

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Types of Epilepsy

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Epilepsy is the occurrence of sporadic electrical storms in the brain commonly called seizures. These storms cause behavioral manifestations (such as staring) or involuntary movements (such as grand mal seizures).

There are several types of epilepsy, each with different causes, symptoms, and treatments.

When making a diagnosis of epilepsy, your doctor may use one of the following terms: idiopathic, cryptogenic, symptomatic, generalized, focal, or partial. Idiopathic means there is no apparent cause. Cryptogenic means there is a likely cause, but it has not been identified. Symptomatic means that a cause has been identified. Generalized means that the seizures are involving the whole brain at once. Focal or partial means that the seizure starts from one area of the brain.

Major Types of Epilepsy

Types of Epilepsy Generalized Epilepsy Partial Epilepsy
Idiopathic (genetic causes) - Childhood absence epilepsy
- Juvenile myoclonic epilepsy
- Epilepsy with grand-mal seizures on awakening Others
- Benign focal epilepsy of childhood
Symptomatic (cause unknown) or cryptogenic (cause unknown) - West syndrome
- Lennox-Gastaut syndrome
- Others
- Temporal lobe epilepsy
- Frontal lobe epilepsy Others

Idiopathic Generalized Epilepsy

In idiopathic generalized epilepsy, there is often, but not always, a family history of epilepsy. Idiopathic generalized epilepsy tends to appear during childhood or adolescence, although it may not be diagnosed until adulthood. In this type of epilepsy, no nervous system (brain or spinal cord) abnormalities, other than the seizures, can be identified on either an EEG or imaging studies ( MRI). The brain is structurally normal on a brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, although special studies may show a scar or subtle change in the brain that may have been present since birth.

People with idiopathic generalized epilepsy have normal intelligence and the results of the neurological exam and MRI are usually normal. The results of the electroencephalogram (EEG -- a test which measures electrical impulses in the brain) may show epileptic discharges affecting a single area or multiple areas in the brain (so called generalized discharges).

The types of seizures affecting patients with idiopathic generalized epilepsy may include:

  • Myoclonic seizures (sudden and very short duration jerking of the extremities)
  • Absence seizures (staring spells)
  • Generalized tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures)

Idiopathic generalized epilepsy is usually treated with medications. Some people outgrow this condition and stop having seizures, as is the case with childhood absence epilepsy and a large number of patients with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy.

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