Epilepsy More Frequently Than You Might Expect
Theresa Okeyo-Oweor, Nichole Liggins and Dennis E. Daniels, MPH, DrPH
You may have witnessed an episode of a person undergoing violent shaking and thought it was an interesting episode of ER or Gray’s Anatomy. You may have a friend, family member or be a patient with epilepsy. A recent local newscast featured a parent who stated that it is unusual to hear or witness a person make light of an AIDS patient or cancer patient, but epilepsy is too frequently the butt of jokes. Estimates of the number of people with epilepsy in the range from 1.4 to 2.7 million people, depending on the diagnostic criteria and study method used to identify people with epilepsy. New cases of epilepsy are most common among children and the elderly.
Epilepsy is a general term that refers to a tendency to have recurrent seizures. There are various types of seizures. People with diagnosed epilepsy often have only one type of seizure, although some experience more than one type. The term "epilepsy" can be used interchangeably with "seizure disorder." Epilepsy is not contagious and poses no risk to others.
A seizure occurs when abnormal electrical activity in the brain causes an involuntary change in body movement or function, sensation, awareness, or behavior. A seizure can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. There are more than 20 different types of seizures. These types can be broadly classified into two groups: 1) primary generalized seizures and 2) partial seizures.
Symptoms experienced by a person during a seizure depend on where in the brain the disturbance in electrical activity occurs. A person having a tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure may cry out, lose consciousness, and fall to the ground, and have rigidity and muscle jerks. A person having a complex partial seizure may appear confused or dazed and will not be able to respond to questions or direction. Some people, however, have seizures that are not noticeable to others. Sometimes, the only clue that a person is having an absence (petit mal) seizure is rapid blinking or a few seconds of staring into space.
Epilepsy can arise as a result of many different conditions that affect the brain. Examples of these conditions include stroke (resulting from a blockage of the blood supply to parts of the brain), complications during childbirth, infections (such as meningitis, encephalitis, cysticercosis, or brain abscess), head trauma, and certain genetic disorders. Often, definite causes of epilepsy cannot be identified; in these instances, the cause may be labeled "idiopathic" or "cryptogenic." Hereditary factors may contribute to the development of idiopathic epilepsy.
Treatment methods control seizures for most people with epilepsy. Antiepileptic drugs are the most common form of treatment. With certain types of epilepsy, when medication is not effective, surgery may be. Another option is vagus nerve stimulation, a recently approved therapy in which an electrical device is implanted in the affected person's shoulder to periodically stimulate a cranial nerve. For persons with certain types of seizures, a special high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet may reduce seizures if other treatments do not work.
For additional information, contact the Owens-Franklin Health Center at (936)857-2511 or www.cdc.gov