Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that is characterized by random and recurring seizures of varying intensity. A seizure is a medical episode that happens when there’s a temporary problem with the brain’s electric messaging or signaling. The most common symptoms are loss of consciousness and intense shaking or twitching, but mild seizures can cause as little as a moment of blank staring or temporary behavior changes. People who suffer from epilepsy usually experience these sorts of events with some regularity. Some people are born with the condition, but it’s also possible for it to develop in response to some change in brain chemistry, often owing to accident, trauma, or substance abuse. Patients can usually keep their condition controlled with medication and most can lead very normal lives.
Basic Characteristics of the Disease
It’s estimated that just shy of a quarter of the population suffers from some sort of seizure disorder, though epilepsy is usually defined as a sustained pattern of seizure activity. People are typically only diagnosed if they suffer from two or more unrelated seizures within a single year. In some people, the condition is really obvious; when they experience a seizure, they lose consciousness, fall to the floor, and begin convulsing. This can be very alarming and frightening for onlookers.
Symptoms aren’t always quite so dramatic, though. Seizures can also be marked by moments of seeming mental absence, where a person “blanks out” or behaves very oddly or uncharacteristically. This sort of seizure can be difficult to identify, but is usually immediately noticeable if it’s being viewed on a brain scan. People who have been diagnosed as epileptic often have very individualized symptoms, but in most cases all of the seizures that they experience have similar characteristics. Some people experience seizures in response to known triggers, particularly strobing or flashing lights, but there isn’t always a direct cause. It’s often the case that seizures come randomly and unexpectedly. Just the same, patients often feel certain things or get certain sensations that signal that an episode is imminent.
A person's "seizure threshold" plays a key role in the disease. Each person has an individual level of resistance, or tolerance, to seizures. This threshold is part of everyone's genetics. People with lower seizure thresholds are more likely to have seizures than those with high thresholds.
It’s important to realize, though, that while seizures are the main symptom of epilepsy, simply experiencing them isn’t necessarily give rise to a diagnosis. There are several reasons why these events happen in the brain. In order for someone to be given the “epileptic” label, he or she usually needs to have a sustained pattern of similar seizures that don’t appear to be caused by or related to some other known condition.
Anyone can have this disease and experts aren’t entirely certain why it occurs. Some cases are believed to be genetic or inherited, though it doesn’t usually run in families the way some neurological disorders do. This means that parents who are epileptic aren’t any more at risk of having an affected child than are those with no history of the condition.
The condition can also be caused by a reorganization of brain fluids or charges, often as a result of some kind of accident or head trauma. In rare instances it can also be triggered by substance abuse or withdrawal from toxins like alcohol, particularly if a person has a history of alcoholism or addiction.
In many places the condition is named or classified based on its perceived cause. A symptomatic diagnosis, for instance, happens when there is a known cause such as a head injury, brain infection, stroke, or scar tissue on the brain.Idiopathic manifestations show no clear cause for the seizures and the affected person usually does not have other disabilities. If the condition is cryptogenic, then either of the other two forms is not definitively diagnosed, and it is usually believed that a physical reason is the cause.
Most epileptics are able to keep their symptoms controlled with medication. Certain drugs are able to help keep the brain’s chemistry balanced at all times, and can help prevent seizures from happening. Other drugs can be given to seizing patients to help speed recovery and prevent brain damage during the episode. People who have been diagnosed usually need to be diligent about taking their medications, and are usually also advised to inform people close to them about their diagnosis. In general, though, the prognosis is very good.