When it comes to epilepsy, knowledge is power. Whether you’ve had epilepsy for years or you are newly diagnosed, the more you know, the more you can do to try to control epilepsy and live life on your terms.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder sometimes called a seizure disorder because seizures are the primary symptom. But a single seizure is not necessarily a sign of epilepsy. Tests such as brain scans can determine if a person has epilepsy.
A seizure is the result of a change in the normal electrical activity in the brain. Depending on the type of seizure—there are many—it can last for a few seconds or minutes, manifesting in various ways, with symptoms ranging from rapid blinking and staring at nothing in particular to loss of consciousness, falling, and muscle jerks. There are two major categories of seizure: generalized and partial onset, also known as focal.
People with epilepsy experience repeated seizures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 2.9 million people in the United States are affected by epilepsy. And according to a 2011 study, one in 26 people will develop epilepsy in their lifetime. Epilepsy is a brain condition that causes seizures, which are disruptions of the electrical communication between neurons. Following tests, a person is said to have epilepsy after he or she has experienced two or more unprovoked seizures, at least 24 hours apart.
Seizures are the main symptom of epilepsy, but having a seizure once does not necessarily mean a person has epilepsy. A single seizure can result from other medical problems, such as high fevers, low blood sugar, very high blood sugar in diabetics, an imbalance of salt in the blood, eclampsia during or after pregnancy, and sleep deprivation.
The cause of epilepsy is unknown in as many as two-thirds of people affected, according to the CDC. This is sometimes called cryptogenic or idiopathic epilepsy. For others the cause of their epilepsy is clear: traumatic brain or head injury, brain tumors, birth defects, or stroke, for example.
The different causes of epilepsy can happen at any stage of life.
Many things that trigger seizures in people with epilepsy are considered part of everyday life. These include:
People with epilepsy work closely with neurologists and epileptologists to find the right treatment that will help them achieve better seizure control. There are multiple treatments that may help reduce seizures.
There are a number of treatments for epilepsy, including medication, surgery, and special diets. One option is vagus nerve stimulation, which is accomplished by an electrical device implanted under the skin or on the skin to send signals to a nerve in the neck. Others may benefit from the strict high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet.
The most common epilepsy treatment is antiseizure medication. Taking your medications properly is very important in treating your epilepsy. It is important not to skip doses and to establish a schedule you can remember and stick with. A few tips for sticking with your epilepsy medication schedule are:
Fill a pillbox with a week’s epilepsy medication
|If at the end of the week you have leftover pills, consult with your physician on how to get back on track
Leave yourself notes
|Write reminders in your day planner or put sticky notes on your medicine cabinet or refrigerator—anywhere you will see them
Program electronic alerts
|For those of you who are technologically savvy, program your digital watch, cell phone, or e-mail program to alert you when it’s time to take your epilepsy medication
Whether you’re newly diagnosed or someone who has been living with seizures for some time, knowledge is crucial for successful epilepsy treatment. By knowing the facts, talking to your neurologist or epileptologist, and connecting with others with epilepsy, you can work toward seizure control and to living your life on your own terms.
If you or your loved one has had a seizure, a correct diagnosis is essential to good health. After determining the kind of seizure experienced, and how it relates to any other kind of underlying medical condition, a treatment plan should begin as soon as possible. But remember, the physician is treating the whole person, so the seizure could very likely be related to another condition that needs treatment.
The first step is an interview with a good neurologist or epileptologist, a neurologist who specializes in epilepsy. The neurologist’s first tool in diagnosing epilepsy is a thorough medical history of the patient, including family history of seizures, if any; an observer’s account of what the seizure looked like; and an account of what happened just before it began.
You may be given blood tests, an electroencephalogram (EEG), a computed tomography (CT) scan, or a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. These are just some of the tests that can be helpful in epilepsy diagnosis.
Once epilepsy is diagnosed it is important to maintain a relationship with a neurologist or epileptologist.