What Is Epilepsy?

More than 2.5 million people in the United States have epilepsy, a neurological disorder in which nerve cells in the brain send abnormal signals to other nerve cells and muscles throughout the body. These signals cause unusual sensations and behaviors, and sometimes even convulsions or loss of consciousness.

In most cases, the origin of epilepsy remains unknown, although the illness tends to run in families, suggesting a genetic influence, and has been linked to other conditions such as alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumor, stroke and head trauma.

There are many different types of epilepsy, each characterized by a specific set of symptoms, particularly epileptic episodes or seizures. Seizures are classified as either partial, occurring in just one part of the brain, or generalized, affecting the brain on both sides.

Of the more than 30 different types of seizures, the most widely recognized are absence, complex-partial, myoclonic and generalized tonic-clonic. People with epilepsy experiencing these kinds of seizures may transiently lose awareness, twitch uncontrollably and have muscle spasms with loss of consciousness.

Seizures can be triggered by a range of factors, including infection, alcohol consumption, stress, hormonal changes, certain medications and sleep deprivation.

While many cases of epilepsy cannot be cured, it can be managed effectively with medication, diet and electrical stimulation. Surgical options also are available to those patients for whom initial treatments prove unsuccessful. Women with epilepsy who are considering pregnancy can take comfort from the fact that, with appropriate treatment and monitoring, their likelihood of having a healthy baby is almost as high as it is for those without epilepsy.

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