Epilepsy is a chronic disorder that causes unprovoked, recurrent seizures. A seizure is a sudden rush of electrical activity in the brain.There are two main types of seizures. Generalized seizures affect the whole brain. Focal, or partial seizures, affect just one part of the brain.
A mild seizure may be difficult to recognize. It can last a few seconds during which you lack awareness.Stronger seizures can cause spasms and uncontrollable muscle twitches, and can last a few seconds to several minutes. During a stronger seizure, some people become confused or lose consciousness. Afterward you may have no memory of it happening.
There are several reasons you might have a seizure. These include:
- high fever
- head trauma
- very low blood sugar
- alcohol withdrawal
Epilepsy is a fairly common neurological disorder that affects 65 million people around the world. In the United States, it affects about 3 million people.
Anyone can develop epilepsy, but it’s more common in young children and older adults. It occurs slightly more in males than in females.
There’s no cure for epilepsy, but the disorder can be managed with medications and other strategies.
What are the symptoms of epilepsy?
Seizures are the main symptom of epilepsy. Symptoms differ from person to person and according to the type of seizure.
Focal (partial) seizures
A simple partial seizure doesn’t involve loss of consciousness. Symptoms include:
- alterations to sense of taste, smell, sight, hearing, or touch
- tingling and twitching of limbs
Complex partial seizures involve loss of awareness or consciousness. Other symptoms include:
- staring blankly
- performing repetitive movements
Generalized seizures involve the whole brain. There are six types:
Absence seizures, which used to be called “petit mal seizures,” cause a blank stare. This type of seizure may also cause repetitive movements like lip smacking or blinking. There’s also usually a short loss of awareness.
Tonic seizures cause muscle stiffness.
Atonic seizures lead to loss of muscle control and can make you fall down suddenly.
Clonic seizures are characterized by repeated, jerky muscle movements of the face, neck, and arms.
Myoclonic seizures cause spontaneous quick twitching of the arms and legs.
Tonic-clonic seizures used to be called “grand mal seizures.” Symptoms include:
- stiffening of the body
- loss of bladder or bowel control
- biting of the tongue
- loss of consciousness
What triggers an epileptic seizure?
Some people are able to identify things or situations that can trigger seizures.
A few of the most commonly reported triggers are:
- lack of sleep
- illness or fever
- bright lights, flashing lights, or patterns
- caffeine, alcohol, medicines, or drugs
- skipping meals, overeating, or specific food ingredients
Identifying triggers isn’t always easy. A single incident doesn’t always mean something is a trigger. It’s often a combination of factors that trigger a seizure.
A good way to find your triggers is to keep a seizure journal. After each seizure, note the following:
- day and time
- what activity you were involved in
- what was happening around you
- unusual sights, smells, or sounds
- unusual stressors
- what you were eating or how long it had been since you’d eaten
- your level of fatigue and how well you slept the night before
You can also use your seizure journal to determine if your medications are working. Note how you felt just before and just after your seizure, and any side effects.Bring the journal with you when you visit the doctor. It may be useful in adjusting your medications or exploring other treatments.