The epilepsies are a spectrum of brain disorders ranging from severe, life-threatening and disabling, to ones that are much more benign. In epilepsy, the normal pattern of neuronal activity becomes disturbed, causing strange sensations, emotions, and behavior or sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness. The epilepsies have many possible causes and there are several types of seizures. Anything that disturbs the normal pattern of neuron activity—from illness to brain damage to abnormal brain development—can lead to seizures.
Epilepsy may develop because of an abnormality in brain wiring, an imbalance of nerve signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters, changes in important features of brain cells called channels, or some combination of these and other factors. Having a single seizure as the result of a high fever (called febrile seizure) or head injury does not necessarily mean that a person has epilepsy. Only when a person has had two or more seizures is he or she considered to have epilepsy. A measurement of electrical activity in the brain and brain scans such as magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography are common diagnostic tests for epilepsy.
While epilepsy cannot be cured, for some people the seizures can be controlled with medication, diet, devices, and/or surgery. Most seizures do not cause brain damage, but ongoing uncontrolled seizures may cause brain damage. It is not uncommon for people with epilepsy, especially children, to develop behavioral and emotional problems in conjunction with seizures.
Issues may also arise as a result of the stigma attached to having epilepsy, which can led to embarrassment and frustration or bullying, teasing, or avoidance in school and other social settings. For many people with epilepsy, the risk of seizures restricts their independence (some states refuse drivers licenses to people with epilepsy) and recreational activities.
Epilepsy can be a life-threatening condition. Some people with epilepsy are at special risk for abnormally prolonged seizures or sudden unexplained death in epilepsy.
Once epilepsy is diagnosed, it is important to begin treatment as soon as possible. For about 70 percent of those diagnosed with epilepsy, seizures can be controlled with modern medicines and surgical techniques. Some drugs are more effective for specific types of seizures. An individual with seizures, particularly those that are not easily controlled, may want to see a neurologist specifically trained to treat epilepsy. In some children, special diets may help to control seizures when medications are either not effective or cause serious side effects.