Epilepsy

By:    Published: October 21, 2012

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Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain, in which an individual experiences repeated seizures. It is estimated that nearly 65 million people across the world have epilepsy. Approximately 2.2 million people in the United States suffer from epilepsy. Epilepsy is fairly common and its prevalence makes it one of the most widespread neurological disorders. Even though epilepsy is quite prevalent, it remains one of the most misunderstood conditions.

Definition

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that results in recurring seizures. The seizures are the result of disturbed electrical surges in the brain. Many people may have one unprovoked seizure in their lifetime, but having two or more unprovoked seizures indicates epilepsy.  Epileptic seizures cause a disruption to the person’s behavior or attention and have varying symptoms. There are several different types of seizures, the various types of seizures fall into 2 categories:

  • Focal Seizures
  • Generalized Seizures

Symptoms

Symptoms of epilepsy differ from person to person and depend upon the type of seizure. Most people with epilepsy will have a recurrence of the same type of seizure each time, meaning that their symptoms for each episode will be similar. Doctor’s label epileptic seizures after reviewing how the disruption of brain activity began.

Epileptic seizures are labeled focal or generalized; there are many types of seizures, each with their own set of symptoms. There are two types of focal seizures: simple focal and complex focal. Symptoms of simple focal seizures include:

  • No loss of consciousness
  • Change in emotions
  • Change in the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound.
  • Involuntary jerking of the arms or legs
  • Sudden sensations including: tingling, light flashing or vertigo

Symptoms of complex focal seizures include:

  • Loss of consciousness or responsiveness
  • Staring or gazing into space
  • Engaging in movements such as hand rubbing, walking in circles, chewing or swallowing for no reason.

There are six types of generalized seizures: Petit Mal, Tonic, Clonic, Myoclonic, Atonic and Grand Mal. The symptoms and characteristics of each type of generalized seizures are broken down as follows:

Petit Mal Seizures:

  • Brief loss of consciousness
  • Gazing and slight involuntary body movements

Tonic Seizures:

  • Stiffening of muscles
  • Dropping to the floor

Clonic Seizures:

  • Jerking movements of the arms, face or neck
  • Movements in a rhythmic pattern

Myoclonic Seizures:

  • Unexpected twitching of the arms or legs
  • Lasts for a short period of time

Atonic Seizures:

  • Abrupt collapse and fall to the ground due to loss of normal muscle function.

Grand Mal Seizures:

  • Most intense type of seizure
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Stiffening of the body
  • Violent shaking
  • Risk of biting tongue
  • Possible loss of bladder control

Causes

In approximately half of all people diagnosed with epilepsy, no cause will be found. It is believed that epilepsy may stem from the changes in the tissues of the brain, which causes the brain to send out abnormal electrical impulses. The seizures associated with epilepsy are recurring and unpredictable. Though in many cases there is no clear cause for epilepsy, in some cases the epilepsy can be linked to certain conditions including:

  • Genetics
  • Trauma to the head
  • Medical conditions such as heart attack or stroke
  • Dementia
  • Diseases such as AIDS, meningitis or encephalitis
  • Injury before or during birth
  • Disorders such as Down syndrome or autism

Risk Factors

Certain factors may increase a person’s risk for developing epilepsy. These risk factors include:

  • Age, epilepsy tends to occur more in children and the elderly
  • Sex, men tend to have epilepsy more than women
  • Family medical history of epilepsy
  • Congenital brain defects
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Vascular disease
  • Infections of the brain
  • Seizures in childhood

Diagnostic Tests

Diagnosing epilepsy is a process involving many steps. Your doctor will likely begin by doing a full medical history, neurological examination and blood tests. In addition, your doctor will likely order diagnostic tests including:

  • Electroencephalogram or EEG, which records and evaluates the electrical activity within the brain.
  • Ct Scan, which can reveal any abnormalities within the brain.
  • MRI Scan, which shows a greater detailed image of the brain.
  • Functional MRI, which can identify the parts of the brain responsible for particular functions and the change patterns that occur when they are in use.
  • PET Scan, in which a small dose of radioactive fluid is injected into the veins to reveal each area of the brain and any abnormalities.
  • IQ tests
  • Memory assessments
  • Speech evaluations

Treatment Options

In most cases, your doctor will try to control epileptic seizures with medications. If medications don’t work, your doctor may suggest surgery to alleviate seizures. The two most common treatment options are:

  • Medications, known as Anticonvulsants, to help control or minimize seizures.  It may take a few attempts before finding the right medication for you. Take all medications as prescribed and watch for side effects.
  • Surgery may be considered if tests reveal that your seizures are due to an abnormality in a specific part of the brain that can be repaired. Surgery may also be used to put a VNS in place, a device that can help to control seizures.

Home Remedies

If you have been diagnosed with epilepsy, there may be certain home remedies you can follow to reduce the number of seizures that you experience. These lifestyle changes include:

  • Taking all medications as prescribed
  • Controlling and minimizing stress
  • Protect yourself from illness and infection
  • Making sure to get an adequate amount of sleep
  • Limiting the use of alcohol and drugs
  • Wearing a medical ID bracelet

Complications

Because epileptic seizures are not predictable and can recur at any time, individuals with epilepsy may find themselves in unsafe situations. Complications from epilepsy may arise, including:

  • Falling down, which can lead to breaking bones or other injuries
  • People with epilepsy are 13 times more likely to drown than other people
  • Car accidents due to seizures while driving
  • Complications during pregnancy
  • Depression, anxiety or thoughts of suicide
  • Learning problems
  • Choking
  • Permanent brain injury
  • Side effects from medications

Considerations

If you have just experienced a seizure for the very first time, consult your doctor. If you have a history of epilepsy, it may be unsafe for you to drive or operate machinery. If you have a history of epilepsy it is important for you to seek medical attention if:

  • You have a seizure lasting in excess of 5 minutes
  • Another seizure occurs immediately after the first
  • There is a loss of breathing or consciousness that does not return when seizure is over
  • A high fever is present
  • You become pregnant
  • You are diabetic
  • You endured an injury following the seizure

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that occurs when electrical impulses within the brain become abnormal resulting in seizures. A person with epilepsy has recurring seizures over a period of years. Epileptic seizures can have varying symptoms and can range from mild to severe. Epilepsy can usually be controlled through medication or surgery.

Sources:

  • PubMed Health
  • Medline Plus
  • Mayo Clinic
  • EpilepsyFoundation.org

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