Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that's also known as a seizure disorder because of recurring episodes of unprovoked seizures. The disease is often diagnosed after you've experienced a minimum of two seizures (or after a single seizure but with a high risk for additional seizures) not caused by a known medical condition such as dangerously low blood sugar.

Seizures and the disorder known as epilepsy are not the same. An epileptic seizure is a momentary or short event caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Epilepsy, on the other hand, is characterized by an ongoing likelihood to experience repeated epileptic seizures and as a result, suffer the health consequences associated with those seizures.

Seizures associated with epilepsy can be mild, moderate or severe, both in intensity and frequency. The seizures may be linked to a brain injury or a family history, but often the cause is unknown. Epilepsy affects nearly three and a half million Americans and 65 million people worldwide.

What are the types of epilepsy?

Epilepsy is classified by three types of seizures:

  • Generalized onset seizures: These affect groups of cells on both sides of the brain at the same time. Noticeable characteristics during a seizure can range from confusion to loss of consciousness. Other signs may include biting the tongue, locking the jaw, and loss of bladder and bowel control. At least six seizure subtypes are part of generalized onset seizures.
  • Focal seizures: Also known as partial seizures, the abnormal electrical activity that can cause seizures is limited to only part of the brain. These seizures can be characterized by muscle contractions on one side of the body, numbness or tingling sensations, jerking head or eye movements, rapid pulse and abdominal pain.
  • Unknown onset seizures: These are what seizures are called when the beginning of a seizure isn't known, perhaps because no one witnessed it. As more becomes known about a specific seizure, it may later be reclassified as generalized or focal.

What are the primary epilepsy symptoms?

Symptoms among children may include:

  • Temporary memory impairment or incoherent mumbling
  • Sudden falls
  • Repeated stumbling
  • Increased clumsiness
  • Repetitious movements such as rapid blinking or head nodding
  • Sleepiness and irritability when awakened

Adults may experience:

  • Temporary confusion
  • Episodes of staring into space
  • Involuntary jerking movements in the arms and legs
  • Loss of consciousness or awareness of surroundings
  • Anxiety or fear

How is epilepsy diagnosed?

Your HonorHealth neurologist will use these tools to diagnose epilepsy:

  • MRI scans of the brain
  • Electroencephalography (EEG), a method of recording electrical activity in the brain
  • Blood test

Epilepsy causes and risk factors

These include:

  • Smaller than normal weight or size at birth
  • Seizures in the first month of life
  • Abnormal areas in the brain at birth
  • Bleeding into the brain or skull
  • Abnormal blood vessels in the brain
  • Traumatic brain injury or too little oxygen in the brain
  • Infections of the brain, including meningitis or encephalitis
  • Stroke
  • Brain tumor
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Other conditions marked by intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • Seizures occurring within days after head injury
  • Family history of epilepsy
  • Late-stage Alzheimer's disease
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Repeated mild head injuries

Treatment options for epilepsy

Epilepsy is a life-long condition that can be managed by medication. Your neurologist will work with you to identify the best anti-seizure medication for you. If one fails, another may work better.