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What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which clusters of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain sometimes signal abnormally. Neurons normally generate electrochemical impulses that act on other neurons, glands, and muscles to produce human thoughts, feelings, and actions. In epilepsy, the normal pattern of neuronal activity becomes disturbed, causing strange sensations, emotions, and behavior, or sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness. During a seizure, neurons may fire as many as 500 times a second, much faster than normal. In some people, this happens only occasionally; for others, it may happen up to hundreds of times a day.

More than 2 million people in the United States have experienced an unprovoked seizure or been diagnosed with epilepsy. For about 80 percent of those diagnosed with epilepsy, seizures can be controlled with modern medicines and surgical techniques. However, about 25 to 30 percent of people with epilepsy will continue to experience seizures even with the best available treatment. Doctors call this situation intractable epilepsy. Having a seizure does not necessarily mean that a person has epilepsy. Only when a person has had two or more seizures is he or she considered to have epilepsy.

Epilepsy is not contagious and is not caused by mental illness or mental retardation. Some people with mental retardation may experience seizures, but seizures do not necessarily mean the person has or will develop mental impairment. Many people with epilepsy have normal or above-average intelligence. Famous people who are known or rumored to have had epilepsy include the Russian writer Dostoyevsky, the philosopher Socrates, the military general Napoleon, and the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, who established the Nobel Prize. Several Olympic medalists and other athletes also have had epilepsy. Seizures sometimes do cause brain damage, particularly if they are severe. However, most seizures do not seem to have a detrimental effect on the brain. Any changes that do occur are usually subtle, and it is often unclear whether these changes are caused by the seizures themselves or by the underlying problem that caused the seizures.

While epilepsy cannot currently be cured, for some people it does eventually go away. One study found that children with idiopathic epilepsy, or epilepsy with an unknown cause, had a 68 to 92 percent chance of becoming seizure-free by 20 years after their diagnosis. The odds of becoming seizure-free are not as good for adults or for children with severe epilepsy syndromes, but it is nonetheless possible that seizures may decrease or even stop over time. This is more likely if the epilepsy has been well-controlled by medication or if the person has had epilepsy surgery.

Return to Seizure (Epilepsy)

See what others are saying

Comment from: confused, 45-54 Female (Patient) Published: March 24

I recently have been told by two specialists that I am having epilepsy seizures. I have an undiagnosed clotting disorder that I have been battling for years. During an episode that I thought was a transient ischemic attack (TIA) an EEG was performed and it was abnormal. Two months later I had a follow-up EEG and it was also abnormal. Fortunately I was having symptoms both times. I have since gone for a sleep deprived EEG and am awaiting results. I was not having symptoms at the time. I have had several pulmonary embolisms in the past and had a stroke in 1995 so these episodes I have been having we thought were TIAs until just recently. I do have episodes of staring and blinking. I am aware during this time but unable to respond. I am so confused as I might possibly have two different issues going on or maybe it is an autoimmune disorder that can affect both clotting and seizures. The specialists keep bringing up the word lupus but to date I have not received a diagnosis and with my most recent appointment with my neurologist he said that now he feels that I may not have lupus. I wonder if anyone out there has anything similar or at least some information to help me shed some light on this situation. The TIA symptoms I have been having include dizziness, weakness on my left side and slurred speech. After the episode I get very tired.

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Comment from: darrell, 35-44 Male (Patient) Published: February 14

Since 15 I have had seizures, I am now 35. I nearly died twice and came back. First one at 15, it was 8 hours of shaking and convulsions. I have long ones and short ones about 15 minutes. It feels scary at first and weird, then I am unconsciously shaking. I wake up hurt and feel weird and scared but not as much as before it happens.

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Comment from: 25-34 (Patient) Published: March 21

I am 27 years old and I have grand mal and petit mal seizures. I have been having seizures since I was a month old. I wonder if all of you ever see shadows surrounding you or someone else, and various objects, because this happens to me. I am sorry about all the seizures that we experience. It definitely is terrible!

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