Take Action in the Fight Against Epilepsy
Epilepsy is a central nervous system (neurological) disorder in which brain activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures or periods of unusual behavior, sensations and sometimes loss of awareness.
While there are many medications, medical devices, and surgical options to treat epilepsy, right now there are no known cures for epilepsy. However, incredible advancements in research have helped us understand the mechanisms that cause seizures better than at any other point in history.
Many people with epilepsy can conduct a normal life. However, patients who have had epilepsy for a long time or whose epilepsy is difficult to control are at higher risk for unemployment. They may also need assistance in their daily life activities.
SUDEP refers to deaths in people with epilepsy that are not caused by injury, drowning, or other known causes. Studies suggest that each year there are about 1.16 cases of SUDEP for every 1,000 people with epilepsy, although estimates vary. Most, but not all, cases of SUDEP occur during or immediately after a seizure.
Summary: On average, people with epilepsy live 10-12 years fewer than those who do not have the condition. Excess mortality is particularly pronounced among people with epilepsy and mental disorders. On average, people with epilepsy live 10-12 years fewer than those who do not have the condition.
Overview. Epilepsy is a neurological condition involving the brain that makes people more susceptible to having recurrent seizures. It is one of the most common disorders of the nervous system and affects people of all ages, races, and ethnic background.
Because epilepsy is caused by abnormal activity in the brain, seizures can affect any process your brain coordinates. Seizure signs and symptoms may include:
- Temporary confusion
- A staring spell
- Stiff muscles
- Uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs
- Loss of consciousness or awareness
- Psychological symptoms such as fear, anxiety or deja vu
Symptoms vary depending on the type of seizure. In most cases, a person with epilepsy will tend to have the same type of seizure each time, so the symptoms will be similar from episode to episode.
Head trauma as a result of a car accident or other traumatic injury can cause epilepsy.
Meningitis, HIV, viral encephalitis and some parasitic infections can cause epilepsy.
Some types of epilepsy, which are categorized by the type of seizure you experience or the part of the brain that is affected, run in families. In these cases, it’s likely that there’s a genetic influence.
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Before birth, babies are sensitive to brain damage that could be caused by several factors, such as an infection in the mother, poor nutrition or oxygen deficiencies. This brain damage can result in epilepsy or cerebral palsy.
Abnormalities in the brain, including brain tumors or vascular malformations such as arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) and cavernous malformations, can cause epilepsy. Stroke is a leading cause of epilepsy in adults older than age 35.
Certain factors may increase your risk of epilepsy:
- Age. The onset of epilepsy is most common in children and older adults, but the condition can occur at any age.
- Family history. If you have a family history of epilepsy, you may be at an increased risk of developing a seizure disorder.
- Head injuries. Head injuries are responsible for some cases of epilepsy. You can reduce your risk by wearing a seat belt while riding in a car and by wearing a helmet while bicycling, skiing, riding a motorcycle or engaging in other activities with a high risk of head injury.
- Stroke and other vascular diseases. Stroke and other blood vessel (vascular) diseases can lead to brain damage that may trigger epilepsy. You can take a number of steps to reduce your risk of these diseases, including limiting your intake of alcohol and avoiding cigarettes, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.
- Dementia. Dementia can increase the risk of epilepsy in older adults.
- Brain infections. Infections such as meningitis, which causes inflammation in your brain or spinal cord, can increase your risk.
- Seizures in childhood. High fevers in childhood can sometimes be associated with seizures. Children who have seizures due to high fevers generally won’t develop epilepsy. The risk of epilepsy increases if a child has a long fever-associated seizure, another nervous system condition or a family history of epilepsy.
Having a seizure at certain times can lead to circumstances that are dangerous to yourself or others.
- Falling. If you fall during a seizure, you can injure your head or break a bone.
- Drowning. If you have epilepsy, you’re 13-19 times more likely to drown while swimming or bathing than the rest of the population because of the possibility of having a seizure while in the water.
- Car accidents. A seizure that causes either loss of awareness or control can be dangerous if you’re driving a car or operating other equipment.Many states have driver’s license restrictions related to a driver’s ability to control seizures and impose a minimum amount of time that a driver be seizure-free, ranging from months to years, before being allowed to drive.
- Pregnancy complications. Seizures during pregnancy pose dangers to both mother and baby, and certain anti-epileptic medications increase the risk of birth defects. If you have epilepsy and you’re considering becoming pregnant, talk to your doctor as you plan your pregnancy.Most women with epilepsy can become pregnant and have healthy babies. You’ll need to be carefully monitored throughout pregnancy, and medications may need to be adjusted. It’s very important that you work with your doctor to plan your pregnancy.
- Emotional health issues. People with epilepsy are more likely to have psychological problems, especially depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Problems may be a result of difficulties dealing with the condition itself as well as medication side effects, but even people with well-controlled epilepsy are at increased risk.
Other life-threatening complications of epilepsy are uncommon, but may happen, such as:
- Status epilepticus. This condition occurs if you’re in a state of continuous seizure activity lasting more than five minutes or if you have frequent recurrent seizures without regaining full consciousness in between them. People with status epilepticus have an increased risk of permanent brain damage and death.
- Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). People with epilepsy also have a small risk of sudden unexpected death. The cause is unknown, but some research shows it may occur due to heart or respiratory conditions.People with frequent tonic-clonic seizures or people whose seizures aren’t controlled by medications may be at higher risk of SUDEP. Overall, about 1% of people with epilepsy die of SUDEP. It’s most common in those with severe epilepsy that doesn’t respond to treatment.
Living with epilepsy
When to get medical help
See a GP if you think you might have had a seizure for the first time.
This does not mean you have epilepsy, as a seizure can have several causes and sometimes they’re just a one-off, but you should see a doctor to find out why it happened.
Call for an ambulance if someone:
- is having a seizure for the first time
- has a seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes
- has lots of seizures in a row
- has breathing problems or has seriously injured themselves
Treatments for epilepsy
Treatment can help most people with epilepsy have fewer seizures or stop having seizures completely.
- medicines called anti-epileptic drugs – these are the main treatment
- surgery to remove a small part of the brain that’s causing the seizures
- a procedure to put a small electrical device inside the body that can help control seizures
- a special diet (ketogenic diet) that can help control seizures
Some people need treatment for life. But you might be able to stop treatment if your seizures disappear over time.
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical help if any of the following occurs:
- The seizure lasts more than five minutes.
- Breathing or consciousness doesn’t return after the seizure stops.
- A second seizure follows immediately.
- You have a high fever.
- You’re pregnant.
- You have diabetes.
- You’ve injured yourself during the seizure.
- You continue to have seizures even though you’ve been taking anti-seizure medication.