According to the Epilepsy Foundation about 1 in every 26 Americans will develop epilepsy during their lifetime. Two million Americans and 65 million people worldwide have this disease. One third of those live with uncontrolled seizures because none of the treatments work for them. 7 out of 10 cases have unknown causes. There are more people living with epilepsy than with autism, Parkinson's disease, MS and cerebral palsy combined, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
Epilepsy varies greatly from person to person. Many think of epileptic seizures as full body convulsions. However, seizures may be a simple as a muscle jerk or ‘spacing out’ for a brief period of time. Seizures are physical reactions to excessive electrical charges in the brain cells. This can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
What Causes Epilepsy?
There are many types of seizures. The type of seizure and physical symptoms are related to the area of the brain that is involved and the extent of the electrical charge.
Seizures may be caused by a number of factors. In about 70% of the cases there is no known cause. Others are related to factors that affect brain functioning. Head injuries or oxygen deprivation during birth may cause brain damage resulting in epilepsy (and a number of other problems). Lead poisoning, genetic factors, brain tumors and developmental issues in the brain before birth can also lead to epilepsy.
How Is Epilepsy Diagnosed?
In order to make a diagnosis, a doctor will take a thorough medical history, neurological exams, blood and other tests as indicated. The doctor will be especially interested in what the seizure looked like, what you may have noticed just before the seizure, if it was an isolated incident and if there are any other possible causes, such as fever or infection.
In the case of an isolated event, the doctor may choose to wait and see if there is another seizure before s/he does extensive testing or prescribing treatment. An EEG test to view brain activity may inform the decision to treat or wait to see if there is another seizure. If there is an underlying condition, the first line of treatment may be to address that condition.
Studies show that a child who has a single seizure and no abnormal brain activity has about a 15% chance of a second seizure. If a second seizure occurs, the risk of more seizures is much greater. Children who have abnormal EEG or other neurological symptoms have a much higher risk of subsequent seizures – as great at 50-60%.
The decision to treat seizures is highly individualized. Patients and doctors will determine the best next steps together based on medical history, type of seizure activity, result of preliminary tests and other factors.
Is There a Treatment or Cure?
There is no cure for epilepsy. Over 50% of people with epilepsy become seizure-free for long periods of time with the proper treatment. Another 20-30% report a significant reduction in the number of seizures they experience. About 20% of patients find no effective treatment for epilepsy.
Some people have a single seizure that is often related to other medical conditions. Those who have on-going seizure activity may be diagnosed with epilepsy. The first line of treatment is generally medication. Those with treatable medical conditions may find relief by treating the underlying condition.
It can take time to find the right dose and correct medications to control seizures without intolerable side effects. Working with a doctor to determine the best treatment is very important. The goal of treatment is to help people avoid seizures and live a normal life.
If medication is unsuccessful, other approaches may be tried. In some cases, surgery may be an option. Complementary therapies may be recommended in conjunction with medication, or in lieu of medication for those who choose that route or find drug treatment is unsuccessful or intolerable. Complementary treatments include special diets and vagus nerve stimulation.
The prognosis for most people who have epilepsy is good with proper treatment. It is critical to take medication as prescribed to avoid seizure activity. Going off medication for any reason should be done carefully under the supervision and/or instruction of the prescribing physician.
There are some co-existing conditions that tend to show up frequently in people with epilepsy. These include depression and other mood disorders and ADHD. Researchers found that about 29% of people with epilepsy also meet the criteria for major depressive disorder.
Absence seizures, those that involve a brief period of staring or ‘spacing out’, are often confused with ADHD-Inattentive Type. Although this symptom may overlap in both subgroups, most kids with epilepsy do not have other symptoms of ADHD, such as problems staying on task or finishing homework.
Your Support Network
In addition to your doctor and the staff in his/her office, your support team may include other professionals, family and friends. The Epilepsy Foundation offers support groups for those who can benefit from that type of support. It helps to talk to others who understand what you are going through and are able to offer their experiences. Psychiatrists may be involved with those who have coexisting conditions, as well as therapists. A therapist can help you with lifestyle choices and other issues, if needed.
"1 in 26." Epilepsy Foundation. Web. 05 Nov. 2013
"NINDS Epilepsy Information Page." National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.