Epilepsy is a neurological condition in which abnormal activity in the brain cause seizures, which lead to the presence of unusual behaviour and loss of awareness.
A seizure is a sudden and an abnormal rush of electrical activity in the brain that temporarily takes hold of the brain and incapacitates it.
Electrical impulses are generated and which travel through a network of nerve cells called neurons to different parts of the body with the help of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
In epilepsy, recurrent seizures occur because electrical rhythms of the brain become imbalanced due to a sudden burst of electrical energy affecting their consciousness and movements.
What are the causes of epilepsy?
Around 180,000 cases of epilepsy are reported each year, of which 30% are children. There is no clear cause of epilepsy in some cases but the known cause for seizures during epilepsy is more often than not brain injury.
Following are some causes of epilepsy:
- Genetics. Epilepsy can occur due to gene mutation, directly or indirectly, with a combination of genetics and environmental factors. Certain types of mutations in genes can cause brain malformations that can cause epilepsy. Epilepsy can be inherited, and it can transfer from one generation to another. Children of epileptic women have higher chances of getting epilepsy than children of epileptic men.
- Birth injuries. Any problems in the development of the brain before and after birth can cause epilepsy. Brain damage can also occur due to birth injuries. Families should take legal action by filing for a birth injury lawsuit, winning which they will receive compensation for treatment and other troubles.
- Brain conditions. Certain types of brain conditions such as stroke, trauma, hardening of the blood vessels, and tumors can increase the chances of developing epilepsy.
- Infectious diseases. Various types of bacterial and viral infections can also cause epilepsy. Meningitis, AIDS, and viral encephalitis are some of the culprits that can cause epilepsy.
- Developmental disorders. Damage to the brain during development due to developmental disorders, such as the Down syndrome and Neurofibromatosis, can raise the chances of developing epilepsy.
What are the symptoms of epilepsy?
There are various types of symptoms of epilepsy but the primary symptom includes seizures. An epileptic seizure attack can affect the normal functioning of the brain, depending upon which part of the brain is involved.
Different types of neurological problems can lead to seizures:
- Generalised seizures. These are also known as Grand mal seizures and are characterized by the involvement of the whole brain. In a generalized seizure, a person may cry out or make a sound followed by stiffness for seconds or minutes and then rhythmic movements of legs and arms. Eyes remain open in generalised seizures and the person may turn blue followed by deep and noisy breathing. Consciousness returns gradually and the patient may feel confused after.
- Partial/ Focal aware seizure. In these types of seizures, only one part of the brain is involved and the body part which is controlled by the affected part of the brain may stop working properly. For example, if the part of the brain which controls the movement of the hand is affected during the seizure, then only the hand will show abnormal rhythmic and jerky movements. A person with partial seizures may appear confused or dazed.
- Absence/ Petit mal seizures: These types of seizures are most common in childhood. These seizures are brief and last for only a few seconds. A person may have such seizures more than once a day. A person may lose consciousness with small and rapid movements, such as repetitive blinking.
How is epilepsy diagnosed?
Diagnosis of epilepsy is based on physical signs, symptoms, and the result of various imaging and blood tests.
It is very important to diagnose the correct type of seizure and epilepsy for proper treatment method to administer.
A doctor may ask you to get blood tested to look for signs of infectious diseases, blood glucose levels, and liver and kidney functions. The most common test used for the diagnosis of epilepsy is electroencephalogram (EEG).
EEG is a non-invasive and painless test in which electrodes are placed on the scalp of the patient to identify abnormal patterns in brain activity. You may be asked to perform some kind of tasks during the test.
Tumors and other abnormalities in the brain can also cause seizures. To diagnose such abnormalities, imaging tests, such as computerised tomography (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emitting tomography (PET), and single-photon emission computerised tomography are used.
How is epilepsy treated?
After the diagnosis of epilepsy, different treatment methods are administered to stop or decrease the occurrence of seizures. Mostly, antiepileptic drugs (AEDs), surgery, or diet therapy are used to treat epilepsy.
Patients who have a single seizure or their seizures are not recurring, may not require medications. Antiepileptic or anticonvulsant drugs usually treat epilepsy by decreasing the occurrence of seizures, and, in some cases, these drugs may completely treat seizures.
A vagus nerve stimulator is a device that is placed under the skin of the chest. This device electrically stimulates the vagus nerve and prevents seizures from occurring.
Diet therapy, including the ketogenic and Atkins diet, can also be used with some patients for the treatment of epilepsy. A Ketogenic diet is a special diet that is high in fat and low in carbohydrates that can help to manage epilepsy.
The modified Atkins diet is similar to the ketogenic diet, but it is less restrictive. Both ketogenic and Atkins diets can reduce seizures in half of the patients, especially in children.
Brain surgery can help remove or alter the area which is affected by epilepsy. Resection and multiple subpial transection are the most common types of surgeries involved in the treatment of epilepsy.
In resection, the area of the brain is removed where the seizure started. In multiple subpial transection, cuts are made in the brain to interrupt normal nerve pathways which reduce the spread of seizures to other parts of the brain.
Epilepsy is a chronic disorder, which affects various parts of the body. It’s hard to maintain a normal lifestyle after you start once you start getting epileptic seizures. The condition can make you dependent on help from others. You can wear a medical alert bracelet to let others know that you are an epileptic patient, so that you can get the right medical assistance. Seek professional help and engage in health-improving activities like regular exercise or eating a balanced diet.
Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.