About Epilepsy

What IS epilepsy?

Seizures are a symptom of epilepsy. Epilepsy is the underlying tendency of the brain to release electrical energy that disrupts other brain functions. So the seizure is the symptom of this underlying condition. Having a single seizure does not necessarily mean a person has epilepsy. Epileptic seizures are usually convulsive, but not always. Seizures can last from a few seconds up to minutes or hours, depending on the intensity of neuronal excitability. Epilepsy treatment usually requires the regular intake of controlled anti-convulsive medications.

Epilepsy will affect every person (directly or indirectly) at some point during their lifetime. There are approximately 30,000 (about 1% of the population) people in Orange County, California affected by epilepsy and 380,000 people with epilepsy and seizure disorders throughout the state of California. Most people with epilepsy lead outwardly normal lives. Approximately 80 percent can be significantly helped by modern therapies, and some may go months or years between seizures. However, the disease can and does affect daily life for people with epilepsy, their family, and their friends. Approximately 1 in 10 people will experience a seizure at some point in their life; about 1 in 20 children have epilepsy; and nearly 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy during their lifetime.

Epilepsy affects about 65 million people worldwide. An underestimated 3.4 million Americans are diagnosed with epilepsy, with approximately 150,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States each year. The onset of epilepsy is highest in children and older adults; depending on the diagnostic criteria and study method used. There are about 326,000 children in America with epilepsy under the age of 15. Epilepsy affects 1 in 20 children. It may be associated with another serious and difficult to treat syndrome, developmental disorder or genetically related condition. The social impact on children with epilepsy can be severe and they have almost a 45% higher risk of being bullied.

As many as 50,000 Americans die each year from seizures and related causes, including drowning and other accidents. It’s widely misunderstood condition that too often goes untreated and misdiagnosed. By some estimates, the mortality rate for people with epilepsy is two to three times higher—and the risk of sudden death SUDEP is 24 times greater than that of the general population.

Epilepsy ranks 7th on the global burden of mental health, neurological and substance use disorders worldwide after Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and depression and alcohol use; but ahead of migraine, panic disorder, insomnia, post-traumatic stress, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. Law enforcement personnel are becoming educated about the different intensities and types of epileptic seizures in order to prevent misinterpreting behavior, such as the appearance of intoxication, exhibited by persons experiencing a seizure or in or in the immediate recovery period.

What causes epilepsy?

In approximately 70% of people diagnosed with epilepsy, the cause is not known. The remaining 30% of patients are found to have common causes such as stroke heredity, lead poisoning, infection, brain tumor/head trauma, prenatal brain development problems and more. About 1% of the general population will develop epilepsy. Although the risk is higher in people with certain medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Autism, Cerebral palsy, Mental retardation and Stroke.

In some cases, head injury can lead to seizures or epilepsy. Simple safety measures can protect people from seizures, epilepsy and other problems that result from head injury.  Other types of epilepsy may be induced through occupational damage, due to repeated exposure to acoustic or visual stimuli, or as a result of an isolated high-intensity auditory or visual stimulus.

Whatever the case, the sensory stimulation induces chemical changes in the related brain areas, causing a kind of electrical short-circuit, with a group of neurons briefly firing in a synchronous rhythm. These stimuli-induced forms of seizures are known as acquired epilepsy. When the epilepsy results from an identified cerebral condition, it is classified as symptomatic. Non-symptomatic epilepsies are those occurring in people who do not present brain abnormalities or neurological disorders other than the seizures.

Epilepsy is associated with a variety of developmental and metabolic disorders. Epilepsy is just one of a set of symptoms commonly found in people with these disorders. Sometimes, epilepsy develops as a result of brain damage (simple safety measures can protect people from seizures that result from head injury) and from other disorders. For example, brain tumors, alcoholism, and Alzheimer’s disease frequently lead to epilepsy because they alter the normal workings of the brain. Strokes, heart attacks, and other conditions that deprive the brain of oxygen also can cause epilepsy in some cases. Meningitis, AIDS, viral encephalitis, and other infectious diseases can lead to epilepsy, as can hydrocephalus — a condition in which excess fluid builds up in the brain. Epilepsy also can result from intolerance to wheat gluten (also known as celiac disease), or from a parasitic infection of the brain called neurocysticercosis. Seizures may stop once these disorders are treated successfully.

Seizures can result from exposure to lead, carbon monoxide, and many other poisons. They also can result from exposure to street drugs and from overdoses of antidepressants and other medications. These seizure triggers do not cause epilepsy but can provoke first seizures or cause breakthrough seizures in people who otherwise experience good seizure control with their medication. Sleep deprivation in particular is a universal and powerful trigger of seizures. For this reason, people with epilepsy should make sure to get enough sleep and should try to stay on a regular sleep schedule as much as possible.

For some people, light flashing at a certain speed or the flicker of a computer monitor can trigger a seizure; this problem is called photosensitive epilepsy. Smoking cigarettes also can trigger seizures. The nicotine in cigarettes acts on receptors for the excitatory neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, which increases neuronal firing. Seizures are not triggered by sexual activity except in very rare instances.

What are the benefits of keeping a seizure diary? Keeping a daily seizure diary (a good one is http://www.seizuretracker.com) is one way to make living with epilepsy easier. By tracking your seizure activity and epilepsy medication routine, you can help provide valuable diagnosis information to your neurologist/epileptologist.


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