Overview

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition characterized by recurrent seizures. A seizure happens when abnormal electrical activity in the brain causes an involuntary change in the person’s awareness or behaviour. Epilepsy is diagnosed when a person has had two or more seizures that cannot be related to some other condition.  Epilepsy is a physical condition, not a mental illness.

The brain is made up of millions of neurons (nerve cells). These neurons send and receive information to each other and help to control basic, daily functions such as: movement, speech, thought processing and level of awareness.  When neurons are firing at an excessive, unsteady rate, it causes seizure activity which is manifesed through physical actions and responses. Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder which causes sudden bursts of hyperactivity in the brain. Seizures that are caused by this hyperactivity vary in frequency and form with each person.  A few common seizures may appear as a brief stare, convulsions or a change in awareness and consciousness.

Causes

Epliepsy often starts in childhood or in seniors, but anyone can develop epilepsy at any age. One in every 100 Canadians has epilepsy. In most cases, epilepsy is not genetic, although people with close family members with epilepsy are at a slightly greater risk. Epilepsy is not contagious.

In approximately 60-75% of all cases, there is no known cause. However, a few known causes of the remaining cases include:

  • Brain injury to the fetus during pregnancy
  • Birth trauma (lack of oxygen)
  • Aftermath of an infection (meningitis)
  • Head trauma (car accident, sports injury, shaken baby syndrome)
  • Substance abuse
  • Alteration in blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • Other metabolic illness (hypocalcemia)
  • Brain tumor
  • Stroke
Treatment

The most common treatment for epilepsy is anti-seizure medication.  If medication does not work, other options include brain surgery (in specific cases), an implanted medical device designed to reduce or stop seizures (VNS) or a highly specialized diet (recommended more for children than adults).

Although there are treatments available for reducing the frequency and severity of seizures, there is no known cure for epilepsy at present date.

Misconceptions

Epilepsy is not:

  • A disease
  • A psychological disorder or mental illness
  • Contagious

While there is a 10% chance that a person will experience a seizure a some time during their lifetime, a single seizure is not considered to be epilepsy.


Information provided is not intended to replace any medical advice provided by your physician or neurologist. It is intended to supply general information on epilepsy and seizures. For further medical information or specific diagnostic questions, please refer your concerns to your physician or neurologist.