Epilepsy is a general term that describes frequent, recurrent seizures. A normally functioning brain is able to think, feel and tell the body to move because of electrical impulses that stimulate brain cells. During a seizure, however, incorrect electrical signals overwhelm the brain—resulting in changes in behavior or awareness (such hallucinations) and involuntary movements.
While all epilepsy involves seizures, not all seizures are caused by epilepsy. If the cause of the seizure can be determined to have been caused by something like a concussion, low blood sugar or withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, the person likely does not have epilepsy. If the seizures are common and have no external cause, however, a doctor may diagnose a patient with epilepsy.
Epilepsy and Seizures by the Numbers
10 percent of the American population will experience a seizure in their lifetime
An estimated 2.5 to 3 million Americans have or will develop epilepsy
Approximately 200,000 new cases of seizures and epilepsy occur each year.
300,000 American children under the age of 14 have epilepsy
By 20 years of age, 1 percent of the population will develop epilepsy
By age 75, 3 percent will develop epilepsy
In 70 percent of new cases, no cause is apparent
50 percent of people with new cases of epilepsy will have generalized onset seizures
Seizures and Diagnosis The journey to a diagnosis of epilepsy begins with repeated seizures. There are three basic types of seizures. In petit mal seizures, or absence seizures, a person may experience rapid blinking or staring off into space for a few seconds. Grand mal seizures are the type commonly depicted in movies and on television—in which a person loses consciousness and his muscles jerk out of his control.
With the third type, called partial seizures or focal seizures, there is typically no loss of consciousness or loss of memory about the seizure. The symptoms could include: abnormal muscle movement in the head or face, uncontrollable complex movements, hallucinations, flushness, nausea and rapid heart rate.
Epilepsy is often inherited, so before diagnosis, doctors will conduct a thorough medical evaluation including a complete medical history. They may also use an EEG to measure brain waves or a CT scan or MRI to view what is going on in the patient's brain.
On its website, the CDC has first aid tips to help someone having a seizure. Besides giving a person who is having a grand mal seizure plenty of space and removing objects that could cause injury, the CDC highlights one lingering myth about how to help. "It is not true that a person having a seizure can swallow his tongue," the CDC says. "Do not put anything in the person's mouth. Efforts to hold the tongue down can injure the teeth or jaw."
Treatment Options The primary treatment option for epilepsy is medication, which the CDC says completely control seizures in about two-thirds of patients. The pharmaceutical industry has developed a host of antiseizure drugs, and doctors may prescribe one or more of them. The doctor and patient will need to work in concert to find the correct medication, dosage and frequency for each individual.
In those patients for whom drugs do not adequately end or reduce seizures, another option is surgery. This is generally only used if doctors can determine the part of the brain—called the "seizure focus"—that is causing the seizures.
Other nonsurgical options include putting epileptics on a high-fat, low-calorie diet and vagus nerve stimulation therapy. Approved by the FDA for treatment of some forms of epilepsy in 1997, this therapy involves sending electric impulses to a nerve in the neck. Vagus nerve stimulation has also been approved for treatment of drug-resistant depression and it is being tested for its effectiveness on such problems as anxiety, Alzheimer's, migraines and fibromyalgia.
Have you or someone you love struggled with epilepsy? Share your story in the comments section below.