What is Epilepsy?
Normally, the brain and body are full of electricity. Brain cells are constantly sending out electrical signals that travel along the nerves to the rest of the body. Seizures result from an abnormal electrical discharge in the brain.
Seizures come on suddenly and strike the brain like an electrical storm. Nerve cells, or neurons, fire wildly. A seizure happens when a surge of electricity overloads parts of the brain’s circuitry and causes unwanted changes in movement, behavior, or feeling.
Epilepsy is characterized by a wide range of seizure types and varies from person to person. Having a single seizure may not mean someone has epilepsy. Epilepsy is diagnosed when someone has two unprovoked seizures not caused by a medical condition, such as alcohol withdrawal or extremely low blood sugar.
Epilepsy can cause periods of unusual behavior and strange sensations. Seizures can also disrupt “eloquent” regions of the brain involving important functions such as speech, movement, and awareness.
Types of Seizures
Focal (partial) seizures are caused by abnormal activity in just one area of the brain. There are two types of focal seizures:
- Focal seizures without loss of consciousness may change a person’s emotions or make things look, smell, feel, taste or sound different. They may also cause involuntary jerking of the body, tingling, and dizziness.
- Focal seizures with impaired awareness involve a change or loss of consciousness or awareness. During a complex partial seizure, a person may stare into space and not respond normally to their surroundings.
Seizures that involve all areas of the brain are called generalized seizures. There are six types:
- Absence seizures. Previously known as petit mal seizures, they usually happen in children. Seizures vary in frequency and duration from a few seconds to several minutes. Absence seizures may look like short attention blackouts or daydreaming. A child may seem momentarily confused or unaware of his or her surroundings. Absence seizures last up to 20 seconds and can occur very often (up to hundreds of times a day). Medications can help control symptoms.
- Tonic seizures cause muscle stiffening, usually in the back, arms, and legs.
- Atonic seizures cause a loss of muscle control, which may cause someone to suddenly fall down.
- Clonic seizures are characterized by repeated or rhythmic, jerking muscle movements, especially in the neck, face, and arms.
- Myoclonic seizures are usually characterized as sudden brief jerks or twitches of the arms and legs.
- Tonic-clonic seizures were previously known as grand mal seizures. They are the most dramatic type of epileptic seizure. Tonic-clonic seizures can cause loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, loss of bladder control or tongue-biting.
Phases of a seizure
The active part of a seizure is called the “ictal” state. The “postictal” state afterward is the period before normal consciousness returns. During that time, there is typically a period of recovery. It usually lasts about three to 15 minutes (but may go on for hours).
The postictal state is often characterized by confusion, fatigue, headache, and abnormal behavior. People may not remember what happened during a seizure and immediately after.
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