What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which a person experiences recurring seizures.
In a normal brain, the nerve cells transmit chemical and electrical signals to other nerve cells, glands, and muscles. In the case of patients with epilepsy, the nerve cells (also known as neurons) fire electrical signals at a much faster rate than normal, and all at the same time. This increased brain activity causes seizures to happen. A seizure usually ranges in time from a few seconds to a few minutes. However, in some cases, seizures may last much longer.
Not all seizures are caused by epilepsy, however. Normally, epilepsy is diagnosed when a person has at least two unprovoked seizures, or seizures without an apparent cause.
Signs and Symptoms
Seizures can affect many processes that occur in the brain. Signs and symptoms of seizures include:
- Staring spells
- Temporary confusion
- Loss of awareness or consciousness
- Uncontrollable movements of the extremities
- Psychiatric symptoms
The symptoms that an individual experiences depends primarily on the type of seizure. In most cases of epilepsy, a person experiences the same type of seizure every time an attack happens. Thus, the symptoms are the same during each episode.
Seizures occur due to abnormal brain activities. Seizures are a general term that can be further divided into two types: focal seizures and generalized seizures.
Focal seizures, also known as partial seizures, are the result of abnormal brain activity in one area of the brain. The symptoms of this type of seizure are sometimes confused with other neurological conditions such as migraines, mental illness, or narcolepsy. Focal seizures are further subdivided into two types:
- Focal seizures without loss of consciousness – also called simple partial seizures, these seizures do not cause loss of consciousness. However, these seizures alter emotions. In addition, these seizures may change the way things feel, look, sound, smell, or taste. Involuntary jerking movement of extremities, dizziness, tingling, and flashing lights may also be experienced.
- Focal dyscognitive seizures – also referred to as complex partial seizures, these seizures change the level of consciousness or result to loss of consciousness (or awareness). With this type of seizure, an episode will often make an individual stare into space and they may not respond to any stimuli from the environment. Repetitive movements such as swallowing, chewing, hand rubbing, and walking in circles may also be observed.
Generalized seizures occur when all parts of the brain are involved. Generalized seizures have six types and these are:
- Absence seizures – also known as petit mal seizures, this type of seizure is commonly seen in children. These seizures are characterized by subtle body movements such as lip smacking or eye blinking and staring into space. Absence seizures may happen in clusters and cause short-term loss of consciousness.
- Tonic seizures – this type of seizure can lead to stiffening of muscles in the arms, back and legs which can result in falling.
- Atonic seizures – also called drop seizures, atonic seizures cause loss of muscle control. As a result the person will suddenly fall down or collapse.
- Clonic seizures – these seizures cause rhythmic or repeated jerky muscle movements affecting the neck, face, or arms.
- Myoclonic seizures – the type of seizure appears as sudden, brief twitches or jerks of the arms or legs.
- Tonic-clonic seizures – also known as grand mal seizures, tonic-clonic seizures cause abrupt loss of consciousness. Body shaking or stiffening are also observed and in some cases, biting the tongue or loss of bladder control are present.
When to Seek Medical Help
If a person experiences a seizure for the first time, it is necessary for them to seek medical help. Also, patients or their families should seek immediate medical attention if any of the following happens:
- Seizures lasting longer than five minutes
- High fever
- Consciousness or breathing does not return even after the seizure has stopped
- Seizures during pregnancy
- A second seizure that happens immediately after the first
- Seizures in diabetics
- Injuries resulting from seizures