Seizures can be a terrifying medical condition for both the patient and their loved ones. Onlookers are likely to feel helpless and highly anxious when one occurs, as the person suffering from the seizure may be experiencing a complete loss of control.
Someone who has had two or more unprovoked seizures is said to have epilepsy, a disorder of recurrent episodes. The good news is that the condition can be well-controlled with treatment.
What Is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder in which brain cells (neurons) produce abnormal electrical discharges in the brain. These discharges may cause the abnormal movements and behaviors observed during a seizure. Illness, brain injury and abnormal brain development are all known epilepsy triggers. But for about half of all patients, epilepsy has no known cause.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy affects 1 in 26 Americans and develops at any age. You’re just as likely to develop epilepsy after age 65 as you are as a child. Causes, however, can vary by age group. In newborns, epilepsy may result from brain malformations, lack of oxygen during birth or maternal drug use. In contrast, epilepsy in children may be caused by fever, infection or genetic disorders. Stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and head trauma put adults and seniors at greater risk of developing epilepsy.
What Are the Symptoms of Epilepsy?
Seizures are the hallmark of epilepsy, but having an episode doesn’t automatically guarantee a diagnosis. Seizures can also be caused by low blood sugar levels and alcohol withdrawal, among other things. A doctor will likely diagnose epilepsy if you have attacks with no known cause.
Not all seizures resemble what you’ve seen on TV. Unique symptoms signal different types of seizures. They can include:
- A tonic-clonic seizure is what most people picture when they think of a seizure. It usually lasts between one and three minutes. The person experiences stiffened muscles, loss of consciousness and rapid jerking motions.
- An absence seizure typically lasts 10 to 20 seconds, during which the person stops all activity and stares blankly. Sometimes the eyes can turn upward and the eyelids may flutter.
- An atonic seizure is also called a drop attack. It occurs when the muscles suddenly go limp, causing the person to fall.
- A focal aware seizure is often described as feeling frozen. Because it doesn’t involve loss of consciousness, the person is aware when a focal aware seizure is happening.
- A focal impaired awareness seizure may or may not cause a loss of awareness. It is typically accompanied by involuntary movements such as hand rubbing, lip-smacking or bicycle motions.
How Is Epilepsy Treated?
While there is no known cure, epilepsy can be well-managed with medication. Finding the right one is mostly dependent on communicating with your healthcare provider about the types of seizures you have. Not all medicines work in every situation. If your prescription doesn’t work for you, ask about changing your dosage or trying a different formulation.
Other treatments include dietary therapies, nerve stimulation, behavioral therapy and brain surgery.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Aug. 16, 2017.
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