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Epilepsy Overview

Epilepsy, also known as seizure disorder, is a neurological condition that is believed to affect several million Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 140,000 new cases are diagnosed annually.

Epilepsy is the result of malfunctioning brain cells. These malfunctions cause episodes called seizures.

The symptoms of a seizure can vary widely, but some of the effects can include physical convulsions, atypical behavior and loss of consciousness. It is possible for a person to have a seizure but not have epilepsy if it is a unique event. Having epilepsy means the seizures happen repeatedly over time.

There is no cure for epilepsy, but it can go away on its own. When it does not, it can often be successfully treated in a variety of ways that allow someone who has the disorder to minimize its effect. Epilepsy is more likely to appear when someone is very young or very old, though it can appear in all age groups.

Epilepsy can be caused by injuries, infections, or diseases that damage the brain, but can also appear without such damage. There appears to be genetic factors involved as well. People who have a history of epilepsy in their family are more likely to develop epilepsy than those who do not have such a history.

Humanity has known about epilepsy for thousands of years, but it has often been misunderstood, even thought to be demonic possession or divine retribution.

Greek researchers around the time of Alexander the Great were among the first to begin trying to adequately define the disorder, and some of them held to the theory (proven correct centuries later) that it was a condition of the brain. Even so, effective understanding and treatment would not come until the 18,th 19,th and 20th centuries.

To understand epilepsy requires an idea of how the brain functions. The brain is the center of the body’s guidance network (the nervous system). The brain provides the majority of the instructions that allow us to move, breathe, and interact with each other and the world around us. These instructions are based on information sent from nerves all over the body to the brain. The brain interprets these messages and sends instructions to the body back down the nerves.

Each part of the brain is responsible for specific functions. Some parts handle the senses, while others assist with memory and emotion, while still others help us move physically. Information travels to and from the brain via networks of specialized cells called neurons. These cells communicate information by sending electrical impulses to each other.

When neurons in the brain misfire, the resulting burst of electricity causes a seizure. Seizures are classified by how widespread they are. They can be limited to one small portion of the brain; start in a specific region, but then spread to the rest of the brain; or they can affect the entire brain all at once, with no real starting point.

Some of the types of epilepsy include:

  • Juvenile myoclonic epilepsy: A common type of epilepsy that usually begins in adolescence and strikes in the early morning. The seizure symptoms can vary widely, but primarily involve fast jerks in specific body parts.
  • Benign rolandic epilepsy: Also known as benign childhood epilepsy, this condition also tends to appear in the young.
  • Reflex epilepsy: This epilepsy is caused by a specific trigger. The trigger varies from person to person and could be light, sound, or other stimuli.
  • West syndrome epilepsy: Another type of epilepsy that manifests at a young age. Children who have it can also have slowed mental development.
  • Lennox-Gastaut syndrome epilepsy: This is a hard-to-treat form of epilepsy that also often first appears in children. The symptoms of the seizures vary, and it is often linked to mental retardation.
  • Landau-Kleffner epilepsy: This condition also affects children and can hinder development of speech.
  • Rasmussen’s encephalitis epilepsy: This is another severe type of epilepsy that tends to badly damage one side of the brain. The seizures tend to occur in the side of the body controlled by the affected part of the brain.

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed : Jennifer Monti, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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