While the signs of some chronic illnesses are vague or invisible, symptoms of epilepsy can be hard to miss. The neurological disorder is characterized by recurrent epileptic seizures or periods of excessive or overlapping brain activity. It also comes with a stigma: Patients who have epileptic seizures have been accused of being violent, crazy and even obsessed. These misconceptions are sometimes more harmful than the symptoms of epilepsy itself. With proper treatment, people with this disease often live a safe and happy life. Here are some facts.
. 1 Epilepsy has fostered superstition for centuries.
Before modern medicine, cultures around the world confused epileptic seizures with intellectual property. There is even a passage in the New Testament of the Bible in which Jesus exorcises a boy with obvious seizures. The ancient Greeks [PDF] believed that seizures were a punishment sent by the gods, and therefore considered them sacred. We now know that seizures arise in the brain, but the superstition that surrounds them remains.
. 2 Epileptic seizures are caused by a neurological imbalance.
The brain is controlled by neurons: cells that transmit electrical impulses that enable us to process our environment. Some neurons stimulate other brain cells while others invite them to calm down. This balance allows us to function normally. In people with epilepsy, too many stimulating or calming neurons fire simultaneously and cause epileptic seizures.
. 3 There are several types of epileptic seizures.
When most imagine that someone with a seizure loses consciousness and cramps uncontrollably. These are the features of Grand Mal or tonic-clonic seizures, but it is not the only form they accept.
Generalized seizures are caused by activity in both hemispheres of the brain and include tonic-clonic seizures, seizures as well as absenteeism (short-term unconsciousness), myoclonic seizures (random muscle twitching), and more. Focal seizures occur only in a region of the brain and can be simple ̵
. 4 Not all seizures are signs of epilepsy.
Spontaneous, non-epileptic seizures occur for a number of reasons. The severity ranges from brain tumor or stroke to sodium deficiency in the blood or lack of sleep. A patient is usually diagnosed as epileptic after having had two or more seizures or when he has achieved a positive result in a diagnostic neurological test. The most common test, an electroencephalogram (EEG), monitors electrical activity in the brain.
. 5 Epilepsy causes vary from person to person.
A person may develop epilepsy for a variety of reasons. In some cases, mutations in the genes associated with the regulation of neurons may make some people more susceptible to the environmental factors that cause the disorder. Other causes include brain damage, infectious diseases such as AIDS and developmental disorders such as autism. In about half of all cases, however, it is a cryptogenic disease, which means that doctors can not pinpoint an exact cause.
6 External stimuli can trigger epileptic seizures.
Things that affect brain function, such as drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and not getting enough sleep, may make someone more susceptible to epileptic seizures. Other triggers are much harder to avoid: People with reflex epilepsy get seizures in response to stimuli such as flashing lights or even music.
. 7 Auras may indicate an impending attack.
Warning signs known as auras may take the form of a strange odor or taste, a sudden wave of fear or pleasure, a déjà vu sensation or accidental muscle twitching. Auras are technically focal seizures that the person is aware of, and although they often precede major seizures that cause a loss of consciousness, they can also occur on their own.
. 8 Transient paralysis sometimes occurs after an epileptic seizure.
After completing the seizure, patients may experience complete or partial paralysis, usually on one side of the body. The failure of the motor can last between 30 minutes and 36 hours, in most cases not more than 15 hours. This phenomenon is referred to as Todd's paralysis, according to the Victorian physician Robert Bentley Todd, who first described it.
. 9 Few epileptic seizures are deadly.
The greatest danger of an epileptic seizure is injury from falling and convulsions in an unconscious state. However, most seizures do not cause serious harm. The exception is the tonic-clonic status epilepticus . This is the name for a seizure that lasts five minutes or more. These seizures are considered emergencies and can lead to brain damage or death [PDF].
10th Epilepsy can be treated with vagus nerve stimulation.
Epilepsy can be treated in a variety of ways, from drugs to brain implants. Many patients take seizure medications that balance neuronal signals and prevent seizures. Another form of treatment is surgery to remove the area of the brain where seizures typically occur. Other options include a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet that can stabilize neuronal function, and vagus nerve stimulation, which uses implants to send electrical impulses to the neck via the vagus nerve to regulate brain activity.