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November is Epilepsy Awareness Month


What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a chronic medical problem that for many people can be successfully treated. Unfortunately, treatment doesn't work for everyone. At least 1 million people in the United States have uncontrolled epilepsy. Epilepsy, which is sometimes called a seizure disorder, is a disorder of the brain.

Seizures are the main sign of epilepsy. Some seizures can look like staring spells. Other seizures cause a person to fall, shake, and lose awareness of what’s going on around them.

One in 10 people will have a seizure and one in 26 will develop epilepsy during their lifetime. Epilepsy is NOT contagious. You simply can't catch epilepsy from another person. Nevertheless, anyone can develop epilepsy. Seizures start for the first time in people over age 65 almost as often as it does in children. Seizures in the elderly are often the after effect of other health problems.

What Causes Epilepsy?

Epilepsy can be caused by different conditions that affect a person’s brain. Some known causes include:

  • Stroke
  • Brain tumor
  • Brain infection from parasite, viruses, and bacteria
  • Traumatic brain injury or head injury
  • Loss of oxygen to the brain (for example, during birth)
  • Some genetic disorders (such as Down syndrome)
  • Other neurologic diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease)

For 2 in 3 people, the cause of epilepsy is unknown -- this type of epilepsy is called cryptogenic or idiopathic.

How is Epilepsy Diagnosed?

A person who has had two or more seizures is diagnosed with epilepsy. After having a seizure for the first time, the person should talk to a health care provider, such as a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant. The provider will talk to the person about what happened and look for the cause of the seizure. Many people who have seizures take tests such as brain scans for a closer look at what is going on. These tests do not hurt.

How is Epilepsy Treated?

The most common treatments for epilepsy are:

  • Medicine -- Anti-seizure drugs are medicines that limit the spread of seizures in the brain. Medicines work for about 2 in 3 people with epilepsy.
  • Surgery -- Epilepsy surgery is mostly used when the seizure focus is located in the temporal lobe of the brain.
  • Other treatments -- When medicines do not work, and surgery is not possible, other treatments can help. These include nerve stimulation, or a high fat, low carbohydrate diet with limited calories.

Can I Die from Epilepsy?

You CAN die from epilepsy. While death in epilepsy doesn't happen frequently, epilepsy is a very serious condition and individuals do die from seizures. The most common cause of death is sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). Experts estimate that 1 out of every 1,000 people with epilepsy die from SUDEP each year. People can also die from prolonged seizures (status epilepticus). About 2% of deaths in people with epilepsy is due to this type of seizure emergency.

Can I Prevent Epilepsy?

These are some of the most common ways to reduce your risk of developing epilepsy:

  • Have a healthy pregnancy. Follow a prenatal care plan with your health care provider to keep you and your baby healthy.
  • Prevent brain injuries.
  • Lower the chances of stroke and heart disease.
  • Be up-to-date on your vaccinations.
  • Wash your hands and prepare food safely to prevent infections.

How Do I Live With Epilepsy?

People with epilepsy CAN handle jobs with responsibility and stress. People with seizure disorders are found in all walks of life. They may work in business, government, the arts, and all sorts of professions. Having epilepsy should not affect the type of job or responsibility that a person has.

If you have further questions about epilepsy, or suspect that you or another family member or friend may be exhibiting signs of epilepsy, contact your primary care provider for an appointment to discuss symptoms. If you do not have a primary care provider, contact the CCMH Medical Clinic at 712-265-2700.