Epilepsy is a brain disorder causing a temporary electrical problem in the brain. It’s like a tiny lightning flash that causes the brain’s thinking to start to skip, like a damaged CD. This problem causes seizures (convulsions), changes in consciousness, or odd movements or behavior.
Epilepsy is usually a lifelong condition, but some types, such as seizures caused by brain damage, infections, or tumors, may go away after treatment of the cause.
Causes include brain disorders present at birth, head injuries, infections (meningitis, encephalitis), tumors, poisoning, and drug and alcohol abuse. It isn’t contagious but can run in families. Often, the cause is unknown.
Symptoms vary with the kind of epilepsy—partial (simple or complex) or generalized (absence, myoclonic, atonic, or tonic-clonic).
Some people stop what they’re doing, stare blankly, and aren’t aware of what’s happening. Other people lose consciousness, stiffen, twitch, and have uncontrollable jerky movements. They lose bladder control, become violent or angry, laugh for no reason, or make odd body movements. Deep sleep or feelings of confusion follow.
Before a seizure, some people may have warnings such as a tense feeling, bad smell, hearing a strange noise, or not seeing right.
The health care provider will make a diagnosis from a medical history and physical examination. The health care provider will check the brain’s electrical activity with a test called electroencephalography (EEG). The electroencephalogram tracing shows the electrical activity. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) may be done to look for a cause of the seizures. Positron emission tomography (PET) is a newer radiology test that shows brain activity in different areas of the brain. Blood tests may be done to check for other causes of seizures.
Antiepileptic drugs are the most common treatment to control seizures. Medicine is often changed or adjusted for better seizure control. Surgery may be used if drugs don’t help. Other newer treatment options are vagus nerve stimulation and special diets. An electrical device is placed in the shoulder to stimulate a cranial nerve. A high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet may help reduce certain seizures if other treatments don’t work.
Medicines can cause side effects, which the health care provider will explain.
When someone has a seizure, prevent injuries by cushioning the head, turning the person on their side, and taking away items that could cause injuries. Don’t hold the person down, force anything into the mouth, or shout or shake the person. Afterward, let the person rest or sleep if needed.
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