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Am Fam Physician. 2001;64(1):105-106

What is a seizure, and what is epilepsy?

Seizure (say this: see-zhure) is a word for abnormal, uncontrollable movements or behaviors that are caused by unusual electric activity in the brain. Epilepsy (say this: ep-il-ep-see) is a word for a group of related disorders. People with epilepsy have seizures over and over again. Epilepsy is sometimes called “seizure disorder.”

What causes epilepsy?

Epilepsy can be inherited. It can also be caused by damage to the brain. Often the cause is not known.

Who gets epilepsy?

Epilepsy is fairly common. Many people have it. It affects about one of every 100 people. In the United States, about 2 million people have epilepsy.

Are all seizures the same?

No. There are many different kinds of seizures. The most common and well-known kind of seizure is called a grand mal seizure. (Sometimes it is called a convulsion.) A person having a grand mal seizure usually loses consciousness (blacks out) and falls down. The body gets stiff for 30 to 60 seconds. Then the body jerks violently for 30 to 60 seconds. After the seizure ends, the person usually goes into a deep sleep or may be drowsy and confused for up to several hours. There may be no memory of the seizure or things that happened right before the seizure.

In other kinds of seizures, the person may or may not lose consciousness. Most people with epilepsy have more than one kind of seizure.

How does the doctor find out I have epilepsy?

Sometimes a doctor can know if you have epilepsy by the kind of seizures you have. An EEG, which is a brain wave test, can be useful. When the diagnosis is uncertain, EEG-video monitoring can be used. During this kind of testing, an EEG monitors your brain's activity and cameras videotape body movement and behavior during a seizure. This test may take several days in a special facility.

How is epilepsy treated?

Most seizures can be controlled with anti-epileptic medicines. The kind of medicine you will take depends on the following things:

  • How often you have seizures

  • How severe the seizures are

  • Your age

  • Your general health

  • Other health problems you might have

Do antiepileptic medicines have side effects?

Yes. Like most medicines, they sometimes have side effects. These medicines might make you feel tired or dizzy. You may feel slightly uncoordinated. You may also have some vision problems.

Do the medicines always control the seizures?

Not always. But seizures are controlled with medicine in about 70 percent of people with epilepsy.

What can my doctor do if medicines do not work for me?

If medicines do not work, other treatment options can be considered. Surgery can be very effective. Some kinds of epilepsy can be treated with a special, very strict diet called a ketogenic diet. Another treatment is called vagus nerve stimulation. A little machine that is like a pacemaker is put under your skin.

Where can I get more information about epilepsy?

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