What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a health condition whereby sufferers have frequent seizures. Seizures or ‘fits’ are bursts of activity in the brain that stop it from working as it should temporarily. Usually, people are diagnosed with this condition in childhood or in those over 60 but it can begin at any age. The condition is usually a life-long one but it sometimes can improve.

Epilepsy symptoms

There are different types of seizure and so possible epilepsy symptoms can include:

  • Jerking or shaking that is uncontrollable
  • Lack of awareness/blank staring
  • Body stiffness
  • Unusual sensations including smells, tastes and feelings in limbs or in the tummy
  • Collapsing

Seeking help

If you think you or someone you know has had a seizure and it’s the first time it’s happened, you need to see a GP. Having a single seizure does not mean you will have epilepsy as there are often other causes.

When to call an ambulance

You should call an emergency ambulance if:

  • Someone is having a seizure and has not had one in the past
  • A seizure lasts more than 5 minutes
  • Someone has multiple seizures in a row
  • Has difficulty breathing or has caused themselves an injury

Epilepsy treatments

Epilepsy treatments are available and can help people to stop having seizures or to have fewer seizures.

Treatments often include medicines – this is the main treatment of epilepsy – but sometimes patients have surgery to remove a part of the brain that is causing their seizures. Some people also have an electrical device inserted into their body that helps to control seizures. Finally, a special ketogenic diet has been known to help control seizures.

Life with epilepsy

With epilepsy under control, there is no reason why people can’t lead a normal life. Children who have epilepsy usually go to a mainstream school, do typical childhood activities and go on to get jobs.

There are, of course, some considerations. For example, if you’re epileptic and plan on swimming or driving, you’ll need to check with your doctor.

Epilepsy causes

Epileptic seizures are caused by a sudden burst of activity in the brain when electrical signals become scrambled. Usually, there is no clear explanation as to why this happens. About one-third of epilepsy sufferers have a family history of the condition.

Sometimes, epilepsy does have a cause. It can be caused by damage from:

  • a brain tumour
  • a stroke
  • a severe injury to the head
  • alcohol misuse
  • drug abuse
  • a lack of oxygen at birth
  • a brain infection

People are affected by seizures in different ways, it depends on which section of their brain is involved.

Types of seizures

Focal seizures (simple partial seizures) can cause strange feelings that are difficult to describe. It might be a feeling in your tummy as if you’re on a rollercoaster or a feeling of déjà vu. They might also cause you to feel tingling sensations, taste or smell something unusual or have intense feelings. Some people have a part of their body that goes stiff or that jerks.

Complex partial (focal) seizures mean you lose awareness of your body. You will make random movements. You may rub your hands, smack your lips, move your arms around, fiddle with objects or pick at clothes. Although it looks as if you are awake and aware, you won’t remember any of it and won’t be responsive during it.

Tonic-clonic seizures

This is what the majority of people think of when they think of epilepsy. They happen in two phases. Firstly, the tonic stage. This is when your body goes stiff and you lose consciousness. If you’re standing, you’ll fall. The second stage is the clonic phase and this is when your limbs will be jerking. You might struggle with breathing or lose control of your bowel or bladder. Usually, these seizures last for a few minutes and afterwards, you are very tired and confused.

Absence seizures

These are when you lose awareness of what’s going on around you. They’re more common in children. During an absence seizure, you might look like you’re daydreaming, flutter your eyes, stare into space or make small jerking movements.

Triggers of seizures

For lots of epilepsy suffers, seizures just happen at random. Sometimes, though, there are triggers. For example:

  • a lack of sleep
  • stress
  • waking up
  • flashing lights
  • women’s periods
  • consuming alcohol

Testing for epilepsy

If your doctor thinks you might have epilepsy, you will have tests. These might include an EEG. This is an electroencephalogram which checks for unusual electrical activity in your brain. You could also have a brain scan. This will be able to spot any problems in your brain that might cause epilepsy. For example, a brain tumour, brain damage or brain scarring.