Epilepsy is currently defined as a tendency to have recurrent seizures (sometimes called fits). A seizure is caused by a sudden burst of excess electrical activity in the brain, causing a temporary disruption in the normal message passing between brain cells. This disruption results in the brain’s messages becoming halted or mixed up.
The brain is responsible for all the functions of your body, so what you experience during a seizure will depend on where in your brain the epileptic activity begins and how widely and rapidly it spreads. For this reason, there are many different types of seizure and each person will experience epilepsy in a way that is unique to them.
What causes epilepsy?
Sometimes the reason epilepsy develops is clear. It could be because of brain damage caused by a difficult birth; a severe blow to the head; a stroke which starves the brain of oxygen; or an infection of the brain such as meningitis. Very occasionally the cause is a brain tumour. Epilepsy with a known cause is called ‘symptomatic’ epilepsy. For most people - six out of ten, in fact - there is no known cause and this is called ‘idiopathic’ epilepsy.
How is epilepsy diagnosed?
There is no conclusive test for epilepsy, although tests such as the electroencephalogram (EEG) – which records brainwave patterns - can give doctors useful information. Epilepsy should be diagnosed by a doctor with specialist training in epilepsy. An epilepsy specialist will use their own expert knowledge, along with test results and the patient’s or witness’s accounts of the seizures, to make the diagnosis.
Because epilepsy is currently defined as the tendency to have recurrent seizures, it is unusual to be diagnosed with epilepsy after only one seizure. In the UK around one in 20 people will have a single seizure at some point in their life, whereas one in 131 people have epilepsy.
Treatment of epilepsy
At the moment there is no cure for epilepsy. However, with the right type and dosage of anti-epileptic medication, about 70 per cent of people with epilepsy could have their seizures completely controlled.
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