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Epilepsy - Topic Overview

Epilepsy is a common condition that causes repeated seizures. The seizures are caused by bursts of electrical activity in the brain that are not normal. Seizures may cause problems with muscle control, movement, speech, vision, or awareness. They usually don't last very long, but they can be scary. The good news is that treatment usually works to control and reduce seizures.

Epilepsy is not a type of mental illness or intellectual disability. It generally does not affect how well you think or learn. You can't catch epilepsy from other people (like a cold), and they can't catch it from you.

Often doctors do not know what causes epilepsy. Less than half of people with epilepsy know why they have it.

Sometimes another problem, such as a head injury, brain tumor, brain infection, or stroke, causes epilepsy.

The main symptom of epilepsy is repeated seizures that happen without warning. Without treatment, seizures may continue and become worse and more frequent over time.

There are different kinds of seizures. You may have only one type of seizure. Some people have more than one type. Depending on what kind of seizure you have:

  • Your senses may not work right. For example, you may notice strange smells or sounds.
  • You may lose control of your muscles.
  • You may fall down, and your body may twitch or jerk.
  • You may stare off into space.
  • You may faint (lose consciousness).

Not everyone who has seizures has epilepsy. Sometimes seizures happen because of an injury, illness, or another problem. In these cases, the seizures stop when that problem improves or goes away.

Diagnosing epilepsy can be hard. If you think that you or your child has had a seizure, your doctor will first try to figure out if it was a seizure or something else with similar symptoms. For example, a muscle tic or a migraine headache may look or feel like a kind of seizure.

Your doctor will ask lots of questions to find out what happened to you just before, during, and right after a seizure. Your doctor will also examine you and do some tests, such as an EEG. This information can help your doctor decide what kind of seizures you have and if you have epilepsy.

Medicine controls seizures in many people who have epilepsy. It may take time and careful, controlled changes by you and your doctor to find the right combination, schedule, and dosing of medicine to best manage your epilepsy. The goal is to prevent seizures and cause as few side effects as possible. After you find a medicine that works for you, take it exactly as prescribed. The best way to prevent more seizures is to keep the right amount of the medicine in your body. To do that, you need to take the medicine in the right dose and at the right times every day.

If medicine alone does not control your seizures, your doctor may try one or more of these other treatments. They include:

  • Surgery to remove damaged tissue in the brain or the area of brain tissue where seizures begin.
  • A special diet called the ketogenic diet. With this diet, you eat a lot more fat and less carbohydrate. This diet reduces seizures in some children who have epilepsy.
  • A device called a vagus nerve stimulator. Your doctor implants the device under your skin near your collarbone camera.gif. It sends weak signals to the vagus nerve in your neck and to your brain to help control seizures.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 26, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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