Epilepsy is a condition where a person suffers recurrent unprovoked epileptic seizures.
Epileptic seizures are caused by sudden interruption of electrical signals between brain cells and therefore always start in the brain.
Other kinds of attacks may look like epileptic seizures but are not, such as fainting or low blood pressure.
Symptoms of epilepsy
Seizures can affect people in different ways, depending on which part of the brain is involved. These are common symptoms which include:
- uncontrollable jerking and shaking – called a “fit”
- losing awareness and staring blankly into space
- becoming stiff
- strange sensations – such as a “rising” feeling in the tummy, unusual smells or tastes, and a tingling feeling in your arms or legs
- collapsing, sometimes you might pass out and not remember what happened.
If you think you have had a seizure, the first person to see is your GP (family doctor). They may also recommend keeping a seizure diary to record information about the seizures.
Possible causes of epilepsy include:
- Brain damage, for example damage caused by a stroke, head injury or infection
- Brain tumours
- Genetic factors
- a lack of oxygen during birth
Epilepsy caused by a lack of oxygen at birth can result from negligent medical treatment. Problems and delays during labour can result in a baby being deprived of oxygen which can in turn result in brain damage causing epilepsy.
In many circumstances though, doctors cannot find a cause. It is thought that our genes play a part in who does and who does not develop epilepsy and this may explain why some people develop epilepsy with no clear cause.
Here are some of the seizure triggers that are commonly reported by people with epilepsy:
- Not taking epilepsy medicine as prescribed
- Feeling tired and not sleeping well
- Alcohol and recreational drugs
- Flashing or flickering lights
- Monthly periods
- Missing meals
- Having an illness which causes a high temperature
If you have been diagnosed with epilepsy you should be told of the possible treatment plans. You should also have an epilepsy care plan with you.
- medicines called anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs)
- surgery to remove a small part of the brain that’s causing the seizures
- a procedure to put a small electrical device inside the body that can help control seizures
- a special diet (ketogenic diet) that can help control seizures
Some people need treatment for life but you might be able to stop if your seizures disappear over time. You may not need any treatment if you know your seizure triggers and are able to avoid them.
NHS Guidelines says you should have a review of your epilepsy treatment at least once a year. For adults, this is usually with your GP, but sometimes it should be with an epilepsy specialist.
If a seizure lasts longer than normal or in excess of 5 minutes, it is important that urgent medical help is sought.
Living with epilepsy
Epilepsy is usually a lifelong condition, but most people with it are able to have normal lives if their seizures are well controlled.
Most children with epilepsy are able to go to a mainstream school, take part in most activities and sports, and get a job when they’re older.
But you may have to think about your epilepsy before you do things such as driving, certain jobs, swimming, using contraception and planning a pregnancy.
Advice is available from your GP or support groups to help you adjust to life with epilepsy.