Key Points about Epilepsy
- Epilepsy can affect people of all ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds.
- Neurologists typically diagnose epilepsy using a combination of imaging scans.
- Neurologists can treat epilepsy with a combination of medications, surgery and other therapies.
Epilepsy is a condition that affects the central nervous system, which includes the nerves, spinal cord and brain. The condition is also known as seizure disorder. Epilepsy causes abnormal brain activity, which can lead to seizures (involuntary movements), unusual behavior and loss of awareness. Epilepsy can appear at any age and affects males and females equally. The condition affects all ethnic groups.
There are two main classes of seizures:
Focal seizures. This type of seizure occurs when abnormal activity originates in one area of the brain.
Generalized seizures. This type of seizure occurs when abnormal activity involves the entire brain.
The cause of epilepsy is unknown in about half of people diagnosed with epilepsy. When the cause of epilepsy is known, causes can include:
- Brain tumor
- Infectious disease, such as meningitis, AIDS or viral encephalitis
- Prenatal complications
- Prior head trauma, such as during a car accident
- Specific genes
Epilepsy risk factors
Factors that can increase your risk of developing epilepsy include:
- Having a family history of seizure disorder
- Having a history of meningitis
- Having a stroke
- Having dementia
- Having high fevers during childhood
- Having suffered a traumatic head injury
Signs and symptoms of epilepsy include:
- Feelings of fear, anxiety or “déjà vu”
- Loss of awareness
- Loss of consciousness (“passing out”)
- Staring into space for a period of time
- Temporary confusion
- Uncontrollable jerking motion in the arms and legs
Your neurologist may use one or more of the following diagnostic tools to diagnose dementia:
Physical examination. Your neurologist will perform a comprehensive physical exam, including asking questions about your personal and family health histories. Your specialist may also ask your spouse, adult children or other caregivers questions related to your epilepsy symptoms.
Memory and thinking tests. Your specialist may use these to check your memory and thinking skills.
Blood tests. Your neurologist may use blood tests to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.
Imaging tests. Your specialist may recommend imaging tests – such as electroencephalogram (EEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scan – to check for brain abnormalities.
Treatment for dementia usually involves a combination of the following:
Medications. Your neurologist will likely prescribe medicine or combination of medications to help manage your seizures. It may take weeks or months for your specialist to find the exact combination and dose of medication that fits your needs.
Surgery. If you are taking your medication as prescribed and still having seizures, your specialist may recommend surgery. Surgery is usually only used when your specialist can pinpoint the exact area of your brain that’s causing the seizures. In the surgical procedure, your specialist removes that part of the brain.
Vagus nerve stimulation. With this treatment, your neurologist places a device called a vagus nerve stimulator underneath the skin of your chest. The device sends signals to your brain and can help to reduce seizures significantly. Many people who undergo this treatment will still need to take medication.
Ketogenic diet. Your specialist may recommend you follow a specialized low-carb, high-fat diet to help control your seizures. The diet can be effective in many people with epilepsy.
When should I seek care?
If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a neurologist for more specialized treatment.