What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is most commonly described as recurrent electrical discharges in the brain that disturb the normal functioning of the nervous system and can cause temporary loss of consciousness and/or temporary changes in behavior.

Epilepsy affects over three million Americans today. The number grows by 7½% annually. Each year 250,000 new cases are diagnosed, half of which begin in early childhood.

While epilepsy commonly starts in childhood, it can begin at any age — it can strike any one of us at any time. Epilepsy affects more people than cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and tuberculosis combined. And yet, for more than 75% of the cases, we still cannot find a cause.

We do not know why most seizures occur, or why they occur so unexpectedly without pattern. While researchers continuously find new medications, each has its own harmful side effects and complete seizure control for many is difficult.

  • GENERALIZED SEIZURES: happen when all or most of the brain is affected. So much of the brain is involved that people having generalized seizures “blank out” or lose awareness.
    • A generalized tonic clonic seizure is the kind that used to be called grand mal. The person blanks out, falls, stiffens, and then jerks uncontrollably for a minute or two. While it looks dramatic, this type of seizure is rarely a medical emergency.
    • A myoclonic seizure lasts a shorter time. It causes a massive muscle jerk that may throw the person who has it to the ground.
    • An atonic seizure causes sudden falls. It lasts only a few moments but can happen frequently.
    • An absence seizure is very brief, lasts only a few seconds, and looks like a blank stare, or daydreaming. While it is occurring, the person is completely unaware of his surroundings. It begins and ends suddenly.
    • Infantile spasms occur in babies. They are clusters of brief jerking or jackknife movements.
  • PARTIAL SEIZURES: These happen when only part of the brain is affected, although they can spread to the whole brain and cause generalized tonic clonic seizures, described above. When the seizure activity remains in one area, the following seizures may occur:
    • Simple partial: Affects the senses, feeling, emotions, and movements. Things may look bigger or smaller: there may be hallucinations of sight or sound. People can feel unexplained pain, or fear, or anger. A hand or leg may shake. People do not lose awareness, however.
    • Complex partial: May start like a simple partial seizure, but progresses to cause loss of awareness and automatic movements that look like a trance-like state.