Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which a person suffers from repeated seizures (convulsions), episodes of disturbed brain activity that cause changes in attention or behavior.
Epilepsy occurs when permanent changes in brain tissue cause the brain to be too excitable or jumpy. The brain sends out abnormal signals resulting in repeated, unpredictable seizures. A single seizure that does not happen again is not epilepsy. Epilepsy may be due to a medical condition or a brain injury, or the cause may be unknown (idiopathic). Depending on the cause, there may be a family history of seizures or epilepsy.
Common causes of epilepsy include:
- Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
- Dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease
- Traumatic brain injury
- Infections, including brain abscess, meningitis, encephalitis and AIDS
- Congenital brain defects (problems that are present at birth)
- Brain injury that occurs during or near birth
- Metabolic disorders that are diagnosed at birth (such as phenylketonuria)
- Brain tumor
- Abnormal blood vessels in the brain
- Other illness that damage or destroy brain tissue
Symptoms vary widely from person to person. Epilepsy seizures usually begin between ages 5 and 20, but they can happen at any age. Some people may have simple staring spells, while others have violent shaking and loss of alertness. The type of seizure depends on the cause of epilepsy and the part of the brain affected. Most of the time, the type of seizure experienced by the patient is the same type experienced with every episode. Some people with epilepsy have sensations (called an aura) such as tingling, odors or emotional changes immediately before a seizure.
Complications of epilepsy may include:
- Difficulty learning
- Breathing food or saliva into the lungs (aspiration) during a seizure, which can cause aspiration pneumonia
- Injury from falls, bumps or self-inflicted bites during a seizure
- Injuries incurred in accidents if driving or operating machinery during a seizure
- Permanent brain damage (stroke or other damage)
- Side effects of medications
Certain types of childhood epilepsy go away or improve with age, usually in the late teens or 20’s. Some people with epilepsy may be able to reduce or even stop their anti-seizure medicines if they have had no seizures for several years. For many people, however, epilepsy is a life-long condition requiring life-long anti-seizure drugs. There is a very low risk of sudden death with epilepsy.