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What Is Epilepsy?

Saturday, March 4, 2023 - 12:29
Contributors to this article: 

Bryan Matthews MD FRCS
J D Parkes MD FRCP
Guy Slowik FRCS

Epilepsy is a general term used for a group of disorders that cause disturbances in electrical signaling in the brain. Like an office building or a computer, the brain is a highly complex electrical system, powered by roughly 80 pulses of energy per second. These pulses move back and forth between nerve cells to produce thoughts, feelings, and memories.


An epileptic seizure occurs when these energy pulses come much more rapidly-as many as 500 per second for a short time-due to an electrical abnormality in the brain. This brief electrical surge can happen in just a small area of the brain, or it can affect the whole brain. Depending on the part of the brain that is affected, the surge of electrical energy can cause:

  • Changes in a person's sensations or state of consciousness.
  • Uncontrolled movements of certain parts of the body or of the whole body.

These changes are known as an epileptic seizure.

  • Epilepsy is also known as a seizure disorder because the tendency is to have recurrent seizures.
  • Epileptic seizures vary in severity and frequency, and even in the time of day they occur.
  • While some people may experience no more than two or three seizures during their entire lifetime, others will have several seizures in one day.

Does Everyone Who Has A Seizure Have Epilepsy?

A seizure is a symptom of epilepsy, but not all seizures are caused by epilepsy.

A seizure not related to epilepsy can be caused by a reaction to:

  • A drug
  • A high fever
  • A severe head injury
  • Other disorders such diabetes, some heart conditions, and narcolepsy, among others.

Sometimes people have a single seizure for which no cause can ever be found.

Several conditions or behaviors mimic epilepsy but are not epilepsy.

  • Epilepsy is not a fainting disorder.
  • Epilepsy cannot be caused by holding the breath. Some children act out by holding their breath until they faint. This is not epilepsy.
  • Epilepsy is not momentary confusion, forgetfulness, or a lack of concentration.
  • Epilepsy is not catatonia, a specific type of schizophrenia characterized by stupor and bizarre movements.

Epilepsy is not contagious. A tendency toward epilepsy may be inherited, but it cannot be caught like a cold from another person.

Nice to Know:

Q. Is epilepsy a mental illness?

A. Epilepsy is not a form of mental illness and it does not cause mental illness.

Q. Is epilepsy a sign of reduced intelligence?

A. Epilepsy is not an indicator of intelligence. Epilepsy affects people of average intelligence as well as those above and below average. Some people with mental retardation may have epilepsy, but most people with epilepsy are not mentally retarded.

More than a few people known for their intelligence have had epilepsy, most notably Julius Caesar and NapoleonCharles Dickens and Fyodor DostoyevskySocrates and Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and creator of the Nobel Prize.

What Brings On An Epileptic Seizure?

Seizures can be sparked by a variety of stimuli, including:

  • Lights that flash at a certain speed
  • The flicker of a television screen or TV monitor
  • A sudden loud noise or repetitive sounds
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Stress
  • Headache
  • Menstruation
  • Lack of sleep
  • Having a bad day
  • Some people with epilepsy have seizures only during their sleep.

Sexual activity does not trigger seizures.

But seizures can also occur seemingly for no reason at all.

Need to Know:

Can Epilepsy Be Life-threatening?

Epilepsy can be dangerous, particularly if a condition called status epilepticus occurs. This is a serious situation in which a person has prolonged seizures or does not fully regain consciousness between seizures.

Some doctors define status epilepticus as a seizure that lasts for more than five minutes. More conservative doctors define the condition as a seizure lasting 10 or even 30 minutes. Without emergency attention, this condition can cause permanent brain damage or be fatal.

Hence the importance of taking the medication prescribed.

  • About a third of status epilepticus events are triggered when a person stops taking antiepileptic medication.
  • Status epilepticus can by triggered by sudden withdrawal of certain antiepileptic drugs.
  • About a third of the time, it is the first sign of a seizure disorder. It can also follow stroke, poisoning, high fever, or low blood sugar in people with diabetes.

Status epilepticus affects over 100,000 people in the United States each year and causes about 50,000 deaths.


Facts About Epilepsy:

  • About two million people in the United States have epilepsy or have had a seizure at some point in their lives.
  • About 75% of people with epilepsy had their first seizures in childhood.
  • Epilepsy was first mentioned more than 3,000 years ago in ancient Babylon. It was thought to be an attack by demons or gods.
  • The Greek physician Hippocrates first suggested, about 400 BCE, that epilepsy was a disorder of the brain.
  • Bromides were the first drugs to be used effectively against epilepsy. Their use was introduced in 1857 by Charles Locock.
  • More than 30 different types of seizures have been described.
  • Some researchers have estimated that as many as 500 different genes could be linked to epilepsy.


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