Just the word epilepsy often conjures up fear and anxiety, but nearly 3 million people in America live with it on a daily basis. It does not discriminate either. Epilepsy affects people of all races, ages, and ethnic background. One of the most common disorders of the nervous system, epilepsy is a neurological condition that involves the brain, making people more prone to have unprovoked, recurrent seizures, according to the University of Utah Health Care Clinical Neurosciences Center.
What does epilepsy mean?
“The definition of epilepsy is a moving target,” said Dr. Angela Peters, assistant professor of neurology and epileptologist in the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at the University of Utah Health Care Clinical Neurosciences Center. “Having two separate seizures more than 24 hours apart that are unprovoked is one definition. Another is a provoked seizure. Those patients have a high probability of a recurring seizure in the next 10 years.”
A seizure is a symptom of epilepsy
A sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain causes a seizure that affects a person’s actions or appearance for a brief period. “The electrical activity is caused by complex chemical changes that occur in nerve cells,” according to the Epilepsy Foundation. “Brain cells either excite or inhibit (stop) other brain cells from sending messages. Usually, there is a balance of cells that excite and those that can stop these messages. However, when a seizure occurs, there may be too much or too little activity, causing an imbalance between exciting and stopping activity. The chemical changes can lead to surges of electrical activity that cause seizures.”
Who gets epilepsy?
Epilepsy can strike anyone, but it seems to be more prevalent in the very young or those in their mid-50s or older. “It can start in an infant or in the elderly,” said Peters. “You can go your whole life without seizures and then have one in your 60s or 70s. All seizures should be evaluated.” Peters said many patients end up in the ER first after having a seizure then they are referred to their facility by their primary care physician.
Types of seizures
There are two broad categories of seizures based on what part of the brain is affected, generalized seizures such as atonic, tonic-clonic, myoclonic and absence and partial, which includes complex and simple seizures. Within those two categories are many types of seizures. “Seizures take many forms. Before your doctor can prescribe the right treatment, he or she must figure out which type (or types) you have,” according to the Epilepsy Foundation. This is done through several tests such as an MRI or EEG.
There are multiple treatment options such as medication, neuro-stimulation, diet and for some candidates, surgery. “The treatment has to be tailored to what kind of seizures the patient has,” said Peters. Early diagnosis is essential to get started on the right treatment plan.
Epilepsy can be an overwhelming diagnosis and often disruptive to daily life, but it is important for friends and family members of someone who has the condition to be supportive. Although there is still some social stigma attached to epilepsy, with the proper treatment many people continue to live full, productive lives.
Article written by Becky Ginos