Epilepsy is a chronic disorder in which uncontrolled, recurrent and unprovoked seizures are the chief symptom. It is the fourth most common neurological disorder and affects 3 million people in the United States alone. There are 65 million people with epilepsy worldwide.
What Causes Epilepsy?
About 70 percent of cases are idiopathic, which means they have no discernible cause. In the other 30 percent, the cause is often some kind of brain damage. Tumors, stroke and head injuries can all cause epilepsy. In some cases, the epilepsy occurs as part of a syndrome like Angelman syndrome. It can also accompany other disorders like autism; in fact, around one-third of people with autism also have epilepsy. Some types of epilepsy have a genetic cause. As such, the condition can run in families.
Regardless of the cause, during a seizure, electrical impulses burst out of their normal limits and spread to other areas in the brain. The resultant storm of uncontrolled electrical activity affects the muscles and causes twitching, jerking or full-blown convulsions.
Types of Seizures
Epileptic seizures fall into two broad categories: generalized seizures and partial seizures. The first type involves the whole brain, while the second involves a specific part of the brain. Partial seizures have different symptoms depending on the part of the brain affected.
Generalized seizures are also called “grand mal” or “tonic-clonic” seizures. They are characterized by muscle rigidity, convulsions and unconsciousness. The seizures typically last from one to three minutes. A tonic-clonic seizure that lasts more than five minutes is a medical emergency, as is convulsive status epilepticus. The latter is a condition in which one seizure segues into another without pause.
Absence seizures used to be called “petit mal” seizures. They are most common in children, and there are two types. In a simple absence seizure, the patient simply stares into space for a few seconds, as if they were daydreaming. In a complex absence seizure, the person will chew, blink or gesture as well as stare. Complex absence seizures sometimes last as long as 20 seconds.
Atonic or akinetic seizures are sometimes also called “drop attacks.” They are characterized by a sudden loss of muscle tone. The patient’s eyelids may droop, or they may be unable to hold their head up. They may also drop things or fall down. Atonic seizures generally last less than 15 seconds.
Myoclonic seizures are brief jerks of a muscle or muscle group. Unlike many other types of epileptic seizures, the patient is awake and aware. The seizures last only a few seconds, and they can occur singly or in a cluster.
How is Epilepsy Treated?
So far, there is no cure for the disease, but there are treatments to control and reduce the number of seizures. Medications are often the first treatment tried, and anti-convulsant drugs can control about 70 percent cases.
In some cases, a special diet called the ketogenic diet may be recommended. It is high in fat and low in carbohydrates. A modified form of the Atkins diet is another popular treatment options. Some patients may require surgery if the other treatments haven’t worked. It all depends on the unique situation.