Epilepsy is a physical condition characterized by sudden, brief changes in how the brain works. It is a symptom of a neurological disorder - a disorder that affects the brain and shows itself in the form of seizures.
- Epilepsy is a disorder, not a disease; it is not contagious.
- Approximately 0.6% of the Canadian population has epilepsy. This includes those who take anticonvulsant drugs or who had a seizure within the past 5 years.
- Due to the stigma surrounding epilepsy and the prejudice with which society has historically treated people with epilepsy, many with the disorder are reluctant to admit it or to seek treatment. Thus the prevalence of epilepsy is likely much higher.
- Each day in Canada, an average of 42 people learn that they have epilepsy.
- Each year an average of 15,500 people learn they have epilepsy; 44% are diagnosed before the age of 5, 55% before the age of 10, 75-85% before age 18 and 1% of children will have recurrent seizures before age 14. 1.3% are over the age of 60. This means that about 60% of new patients are young children and senior citizens.
- In approximately 50% of cases of childhood epilepsy, seizures disappear completely.
- In 50 - 60% of cases, the cause of epilepsy is unknown. In the remainder, the following causes are most common:
- brain tumour and stroke
- head trauma of any type. The more severe the injury, the greater the chance of developing epilepsy
- injury, infection, or systemic illness of the mother during pregnancy
- brain injury to the infant during delivery may lead to epilepsy
- aftermath of infection (meningitis, viral encephalitis)
- poisoning, from substance abuse of alcoholism
- Events that may trigger seizures include:
- Poor nutrition
- Missed medication
- Flickering lights
- Skipping meals
- Illness, fever and allergies
- Lack of sleep
- Emotions such as anger, worry, fear and others
- Heat and/or humidity
When speaking about epilepsy, there are 2 types: Idiopathic generalized epilepsy and symptomatic partial epilepsy. Idiopathic generalized epilepsy refers to genetic causes, where the seizure occurs throughout the whole brain and affects the entire body. On the other hand, symptomatic refers to the cause due to widespread brain damage which occur in specific areas of the brain and may only affect part of one’s body.
Idiopathic generalized seizures:
- Falling down
- Loss of consciousness
- Biting the tongue
- Loss of bladder control
- Stiffening of the body
- Twitching motions
Symptomatic partial seizures:
- Jerky movements
- Staring or confusion
- Emotional changes
- Repetitive actions
- Tingling or dizziness
Treatments and Therapies:
Once there has been an accurate diagnosis of epilepsy made, treatment options can further looked into. Generally, doctors will begin treating epilepsy with medication. If the medication prescribed does not treat the condition, doctors may propose another type of treatment or surgery.
Medication. Individuals may become seizure-free after taking anti-epileptic medication. Others may be able to decrease the intensity and frequency of their seizures through a combination of medication. Finding the appropriate medication is based on the individual’s condition, frequency of seizures, age and other factors. Anti-seizure medications can come with some side effects, ranging from mild to severe, such as:
- Weight loss
- Loss of bone density
- Speech problems
- Memory and thinking problems
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviours
- Inflammation of certain organs (e.g. liver)
Surgery. Surgery is most often done when tests show that seizures originate in a well-defined, small area of the brain which does not interfere with vital functions such as speech, motor skills, language, vision or hearing. In this case, the area of the brain causing the seizure will be removed. Seizures which originate in an area of the brain that does control vital functions may be performed while the individual is awake, so as to monitor them during the procedure. For seizures which originate in parts of the brain which cannot be removed, doctors may recommend other types of surgery where several cuts are made in the brain. These cuts are made so as to prevent seizures from spreading to other parts of the brain.
Therapies. Vagus nerve stimulation is a process where the doctor implants a device called a “vagus nerve stimulator” underneath the skin of one’s chest. Wires from the stimulator are then connected to the vagus nerve in the neck. This device sends bursts of electrical energy through the vagus nerve to the brain. This procedure can usually decrease seizures by 20 to 40 percent.