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What is Epilepsy?

Seizures are caused by sudden, abnormal activity in the brain. In many cases, seizures are just a onetime occurrence. However, if a person has one or more seizures that do not go away over time, he or she may have a condition called epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a chronic condition in which a person keeps having seizures that are not caused by another injury or illness. About 1 in every 100 people has a seizure disorder like epilepsy. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that more people are living with epilepsy in the United States than ever before.

A person with epilepsy may have different types of seizures:

Focal seizures. Also known as partial seizures, focal seizures happen in just one part of the brain. The person may or may not experience loss of consciousness.

Generalized seizures. These seizures are the result of abnormal activity on both sides of the brain. There are six different types of generalized seizures:

  • Tonic seizures that can cause muscle stiffness.
  • Atonic seizures that can lead to loss of muscle control and make you fall down suddenly.
  • Clonic seizures that can cause repeated, jerky muscle movements.
  • Myoclonic seizures that can cause spontaneous quick twitching of the arms and legs.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures that can cause shaking, loss of bladder control, and consciousness.

Most seizures last from about 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Depending on the age of the person, these seizures are not likely to cause lasting harm. If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, and the individual loses consciousness or does not wake up, the seizure is a medical emergency.

There may be certain triggers or situations that will cause an epileptic seizure. This may include:

  • Illness or fever
  • Stress
  • Medications
  • Bright or flashing lights
  • Lack of sleep


Recurring seizures are the main symptom of epilepsy. However, it is not always easy to recognize a seizure, especially in small children. Not all seizures include convulsions or loss of consciousness.

When to See a Doctor

If you or a family member has a seizure, you should contact your healthcare provider right away. In some cases, the seizure may indicate a serious medical condition that may need immediate treatment.


The exact cause of epilepsy varies. In some people, there is no clear cause of epilepsy. There is research to suggest that one or more genes may cause epilepsy. Other causes of epilepsy may include:

  • Infections of the brain
  • Head injuries that damage the structure of the brain
  • Brain tumor
  • Kidney or liver failure
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s disease or other conditions that affect brain function

Diagnosis and Tests

In order to diagnose epilepsy, other conditions that may cause seizures will be ruled out. Your healthcare will likely order the following tests:

  • Blood tests to look for signs of infection or illness.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) is the most common test used to diagnose epilepsy. During this test, electrodes are placed on your scalp. These electrodes will then record electrical activity in your brain.
  • Imaging tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI, may be ordered to look for tumors or other problems in the brain that can cause seizures.


Epilepsy can be managed with treatment. Your treatment plan will depend on the severity of your symptoms.

  • Anti-seizure medications. These medications can reduce the number of seizures you have.
  • Vagus nerve stimulator. This device is surgically placed under the skin and can help prevent seizures.
  • Surgery. In severe cases, the area of the brain that causes recurrent seizures can be surgically removed.


Because the cause of epilepsy is often unknown, the disorder itself can’t be prevented.

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