Seizures have got to be one of the scariest medical conditions. While the patient may be experiencing a complete loss of control, onlookers can feel helpless and anxious. Someone who has had two or more unprovoked seizures is said to have epilepsy, a disorder of recurrent seizures. The good news is that the disorder 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 produce the abnormal movements and behaviors seen during a seizure. Epilepsy may be triggered by illness, brain injury or abnormal brain development. For about half of patients, epilepsy may have no known cause.
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Epilepsy affects one in 26 Americans, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, and it can develop at any age. In fact, 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 be a result of brain malformations, lack of oxygen during birth and maternal drug use, whereas 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.
What Are the Symptoms?
Seizures are the hallmark of epilepsy, but having a seizure 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 seizures with no known cause.
Not all seizures resemble what you’ve seen on TV. Different types of seizures are marked by unique symptoms.
A tonic-clonic seizure is what most people picture when they think of a seizure. It usually lasts between one and three minutes, and 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 turn upward and the eyelids flutter.
An atonic seizure, also called a drop attack, 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 it’s 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 largely dependent on communicating with your healthcare provider about the types of seizures you have. Not all medications 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.