Angels of Epilepsy

A 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization

Understanding Epilepsy & Seizures

Epilepsy is a neurological condition, which affects the nervous system. Epilepsy is also known as a seizure disorder. It is usually diagnosed after a person has had at least two seizures that were not caused by some known medical condition like alcohol withdrawal or extremely low blood sugar. Sometimes, according to the International League Against Epilepsy, it can be diagnosed after one seizure, if a person has a condition that places them at high risk for having another.

The seizures in epilepsy may be related to a brain injury or a family tendency, but most of the time the cause is unknown. The word "epilepsy" does not indicate anything about the cause of the person's seizures, what type they are, or how severe they are.

A seizure is a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain that usually affects how a person feels or acts for a short time. Seizures are not a disease in themselves. Instead, they are a symptom of many different disorders that can affect the brain. Some seizures can hardly be noticed, while others are totally disabling.

There are so many kinds of seizures that neurologists who specialize in epilepsy are still updating their thinking about how to classify them. Usually, they classify seizures into two types, primary generalized seizures and partial seizures. The difference between these types is in how they begin:

Primary Generalized Seizures

Primary generalized seizures begin with a widespread electrical discharge that involves both sides of the brain at once. Hereditary factors are important in many of these seizures.

Partial Seizures

Partial seizures begin with an electrical discharge in one limited area of the brain. Some are related to head injury, brain infection, stroke, or tumor, but in most cases the cause is unknown.

One question that is used to further classify partial seizures is whether consciousness (the ability to respond and remember) is "impaired" or "preserved." The difference may seem obvious, but really there are many degrees of impairment or preservation of consciousness.

Identifying certain seizure types and other characteristics of a person's epilepsy like the age at which it begins, for instance, allows doctors to classify some cases into epilepsy syndromes. This kind of classification helps us to know how long the epilepsy will last and the best way to treat it.

There is a fine balance in the brain between factors that begin electrical activity and factors that restrict it, and there are also systems that limit the spread of electrical activity. During a seizure, these limits break down, and abnormal electrical discharges can occur and spread to whole groups of neighboring cells at once. This linkage of electrical discharges creates a "storm" of electrical activity in the brain. This is a seizure. When a person has had at least two of these seizures, that's called epilepsy.