What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a condition that affects your brain and causes seizures.
Having a one-off seizure doesn’t necessarily mean you have epilepsy. If you’re diagnosed with epilepsy, it means that you’ve had more than one seizure that started in your brain.
There are many different types of epilepsy. Depending on the kind you have, your symptoms and their severity can differ. Some people only have seizures for a limited time, but it’s a lifelong condition for many.
What causes epilepsy?
Seizures are caused by problems with your brain’s electrical signals, which cause sudden intense bursts of electrical activity. This disrupts the brain’s regular activity, leading to a seizure.
It’s not always clear why this happens, but some possible causes include:
A lack of oxygen at birth
Brain damage from alcohol or drug misuse
Types of epilepsy
There are many types of epileptic seizures, and these can have a range of symptoms. All types of epileptic seizures start in the brain, setting them apart from other seizures that aren’t epileptic and don’t start in the brain.
Types of epileptic seizures include:
Focal seizures – These are seizures that start in one area of your brain. You may have focal seizures with or without a loss of consciousness
Generalised seizures – These are seizures that involve all areas of the brain. Different types include absence seizures, tonic seizures, atonic seizures, clonic seizures, myoclonic seizures and tonic-clonic seizures
Who gets epilepsy?
Epilepsy can start at any age, but it’s most likely to start in childhood or people aged 60 and over.
Epilepsy in children
Children may develop epilepsy after birth complications, a severe head injury or an infection like meningitis that affects the brain.
The types of epileptic seizures that adults and children can experience are generally the same. But children are more likely to experience some types of seizure than adults, like ‘absence’ seizures which can appear like they’re daydreaming.
If your child is diagnosed with epilepsy they may continue to be treated through the GP or a specialist paediatrician or epilepsy nurse.
What are the symptoms of epilepsy?
The symptoms vary depending on the type of epileptic seizure. Some possible symptoms include:
Involuntary jerking or shaking in a part of your body, like an arm or leg (a ‘fit’)
Changes to the way things look, taste, smell, feel or sound
Tingling sensations in your arms and legs
Stiffening of your muscles
Staring into space
A strange feeling in your tummy
When should I seek care for epilepsy?
Although one-off seizures are not always related to epilepsy, you should always talk to a doctor if you have a seizure for the first time so they can investigate why it happened.
If you have an epileptic seizure that lasts longer than five minutes, have repeated seizures in a row or have problems breathing during a seizure, call 999 and request an ambulance (or get someone else to call).
Diagnosing epilepsy isn’t always straightforward, as it can have similar symptoms to other conditions like migraines, fainting and panic attacks.
Try to write down as much as you can remember about the seizures you’ve experienced, as this will help the doctor understand what’s happening. If anyone was with you during a seizure, it is helpful to ask them or take them along to tell the doctor what happened.
If the GP suspects you have epilepsy, they’ll refer you to a brain specialist (neurologist) who may do the following tests:
Electroencephalogram (EEG) – Small sensors placed on your temples detect any unusual electrical activity in your brain
MRI scan – A type of brain scan that makes an image of your brain using magnetic fields and radio waves to help doctors see if there’s another problem with your brain, like scarring, brain damage or an unusual growth
There is a range of different treatments for epilepsy. These include:
Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) are extremely effective, helping around seven in 10 people control epileptic seizures by changing the chemical levels in their brains. For this reason, they’re also the most widely used treatment. They’re usually taken every day and come in different forms, like capsules, tablets and liquids.
If AEDS don’t help to control your seizures, or doctors can see that the seizures are caused by a small part of the brain that can be removed relatively easily, surgery may be recommended.
This involves removing the affected part of the brain while you’re asleep under general anaesthetic. If surgery is successful, it could help to stop seizures altogether.
Less common treatment options for epilepsy include:
Vagus nerve stimulation – Using a small electrical device that sends bursts of electricity along a nerve in your neck to control your seizures
Deep brain stimulation – A similar treatment that sends electricity directly into your brain
Ketogenic diet – This high fat, low carbohydrate diet isn’t recommended for adults but is sometimes helpful in controlling seizures in children as it’s thought to help change levels of chemicals in the brain
Complementary therapies – While complementary treatments aren’t scientifically proven to help epilepsy, some people find that yoga, meditation and other relaxation techniques can help to reduce stress, which can be a trigger for epilepsy
Self-care for epilepsy
Some people find that certain factors can trigger their seizures. If you’re diagnosed with epilepsy, it’s a good idea to try to identify any triggers. This enables you to avoid your triggers and reduce the number of seizures you have.
Common triggers include:
The best way to identify any triggers is to keep a seizure diary. Include information about what you were doing before the seizure, where you were when it happened, how you felt generally and what you had consumed that day.
Can you drive with epilepsy?
Whether you can drive with epilepsy depends on different factors, like what types of seizures you’ve had in the past, how long it’s been since your last seizure, what kind of driving licence you have, and what advice the doctor has given you.
The Epilepsy Society’s interactive guide on driving regulations for people with epilepsy explains more.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi