Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on August 28, 2023
What Is Epilepsy?

What Is Epilepsy?

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It's a problem with your brain’s electrical system. A surge of electrical impulses causes brief changes in movement, behavior, feeling, or awareness. These events, known as seizures, last from a few seconds to a few minutes. People who've had two or more seizures without obvious triggers at least 24 hours apart have epilepsy.

What Are the Symptoms?

What Are the Symptoms?

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Epilepsy can cause convulsions -- sudden, uncontrolled movements. But seizures can trigger a wide range of other symptoms, from staring to falling to fumbling with clothes. Most doctors divide them into different types, according to how they affect your brain. Each has its own set of symptoms.

Absence Seizures

Absence Seizures

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These are often described as staring spells. The person stops what they’re doing, stares into space for a few seconds, then goes on like nothing happened. It’s most common in children and usually starts between the ages of 4 and 12. Some kids have as many as 100 absence seizures in 1 day.

Generalized Tonic-Clonic Seizures

Generalized Tonic-Clonic Seizures

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These used to be called grand mal seizures, and they’re the most easily spotted. Your arms and legs stiffen, then begin to jerk. This can last up to 3 minutes. After it happens, you’ll probably be tired and confused. This type of seizure involves many areas of the brain.

Focal Onset Seizures

Focal Onset Seizures

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Also called partial seizures, these start in one part of your brain. You might make jerking motions or see things that aren’t there, but still be aware of what’s happening. If you have a complex partial seizure, you might wander, mumble, smack your lips, or fumble with your clothes. Others might think you’re conscious, but you won’t be aware of what you’re doing.

What Causes Epilepsy?

What Causes Epilepsy?

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Anything that disrupts the brain’s natural circuitry can bring on this disorder:

  • Genes
  • A change in the structure of your brain
  • Severe head injury
  • Brain infection or disease
  • Stroke
  • Lack of oxygen

Most people with epilepsy never find a specific cause.

Do Kids Get Epilepsy?

Do Kids Get Epilepsy?

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Yes, but some outgrow it in a few years. Regular medication often stops it. If drugs alone don't keep it under control, other treatments may help. A well-informed school staff can help a child with epilepsy safely take part in most activities.

Diagnosis: EEG

Diagnosis: EEG

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A doctor will review the description of your seizures and your medical history, then examine you. They'll give you a test called an electroencephalogram (EEG) to confirm a diagnosis and get more information about your seizures. It’s a painless procedure that records your brain’s electrical activity as wavy lines. The pattern changes during a seizure and may show which part of the brain is affected. That can help guide your treatment.

Diagnosis: Brain Scan

Diagnosis: Brain Scan

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Detailed images of your brain from tests like CT or MRI scans can help doctors rule out some things as causes, like a change in the structure of your brain, bleeding, or masses. A CT scan is a powerful type of X-ray, and an MRI uses magnets and radio waves to make pictures. This information will help your doctor come up with the best treatment plan for you.

Epilepsy Complications

Epilepsy Complications

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The best way to avoid them is to find a treatment that helps you, and stick with it. Most people with the brain disorder live a long time, and they're rarely injured during seizures. But if you fall during them, you may need a helmet to protect your head. Some types of seizures may make an early death more likely, but this is rare.

Safety Measures

Safety Measures

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Because seizures often strike without warning, some activities are dangerous. Losing consciousness while swimming or taking a bath could be life-threatening. The same goes for many extreme sports, like mountain climbing. Most states require you to be seizure-free for a certain amount of time before driving a car.

Treatment: Medication

Treatment: Medication

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Anti-seizure drugs are the most common epilepsy treatment. If a medication doesn’t work, your doctor may adjust the dose or prescribe a different drug for you. About two-thirds of people with the brain disorder become seizure-free by taking their meds as prescribed.

Treatment: Ketogenic Diet

Treatment: Ketogenic Diet

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If medications don't work, a doctor may suggest this eating plan. It's strict, and your medical team will watch you closely while you do it. The diet is high in fat and protein, and low in carbs -- a mix that makes your body burn fat instead of sugar. This creates changes in your brain that help lower your chances of seizures. More than half of children who follow this diet have at least 50% fewer seizures. Some even stop having them.

Treatment: Stimulation Therapies

Treatment: Stimulation Therapies

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There are several types:

  • VNS. It stands for vagus nerve stimulation. Sometimes it’s called a pacemaker for your brain. It sends electrical pulses through a large nerve in your neck.
  • Cortical stimulation. Surgeons place electrodes on the surface of your brain.
  • Deep brain stimulation. Electrodes placed deep in the brain can cut seizures by 50% or more for some people.
Treatment: Surgery

Treatment: Surgery

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It can often stop focal seizures when medicines are not effective. If the medical team finds that yours always begin in a single area of your brain, removing that area may stop them or make them easier to manage. Surgery also treats conditions that cause seizures, like a brain tumor.

First Aid for Seizures

First Aid for Seizures

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If you see someone having a seizure, take the following steps:

  • Time how long it lasts.
  • Clear the area of anything hard or sharp.
  • Loosen anything at the neck that may affect their breathing.
  • Turn them onto their side.
  • Put something soft beneath their head.
  • Don't place anything inside their mouth.

Call 911 if a seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, happens again, or the person has trouble breathing or waking up, is pregnant, is injured, has diabetes, heart disease, or has never had a seizure before. Also call 911 if the seizure happened in the water. 

Treatment for Status Seizures

Treatment for Status Seizures

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Long-lasting or recurring seizures may be a condition called status epilepticus. It can cause serious problems and needs emergency treatment. To bring the seizures to an end quickly, hospitals often give drugs by IV, along with oxygen.

Epilepsy and Pregnancy

Epilepsy and Pregnancy

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It’s safe for most women with the brain disorder to get pregnant. More than 90% of babies born to moms with epilepsy are healthy. But if you're planning to have a child, talk to your doctor first. Certain anti-seizure drugs can cause health problems in infants. Your medicine or its dose may need to be changed.

Seizure Dogs

Seizure Dogs

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Service dogs can be trained to behave a certain way during a seizure. For example, the animal can lie next to the person to help prevent an injury. A dog can be trained to alert the parents during a child’s seizure.

Epilepsy Research

Epilepsy Research

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Doctors are looking for new treatments with two goals:

  • Help more people fully control their seizures.
  • Reduce treatment side effects.

Some researchers are also studying implantable devices that could alert you when a seizure is about to happen.

Living With Epilepsy

Living With Epilepsy

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You can enjoy a full, active life. Taking your medication on schedule may stop your seizures. If not, you can get other kinds of help. A specialist can come up with ways to curb the condition's impact on your life. The American Academy of Neurology and the Epilepsy Foundation have listings of neurologists who specialize in treating it, too.

Show Sources

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SOURCES:

Epilepsy Foundation: "About Epilepsy," "Absence Seizures," Accelerating New Therapies," "Complex Partial Seizures," "Education," "Epilepsy Bill of Rights," "Epilepsy and Pregnancy,” "Importance of EEG Tests," "Is an Emergency Room Visit Needed?" "Is Epilepsy Inherited?" "Ketogenic Diet," "Looking at the Brain," "Physical Fitness," "Types of Seizures," "Seizures, Medications and Pregnancy," "Seizure Dogs," "Tonic Seizures," "Seizures First Aid," "Simple Partial Seizures," "Status Epilepticus," "Surgery," "Vagus Nerve Stimulation," "What Causes a Seizure?" 

CDC: "Epilepsy," "Epilepsy: Frequently Asked Questions."

Epilepsy Therapy Project: “Vagus Nerve Stimulation.”

Kid’s Health: “Epilepsy.”

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Epilepsy Information Page."

Nationwide Children's: "Seizures and Epilepsy in Children," "Seizure Treatment."

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Generalized tonic clonic seizure.”