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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.

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