Epilepsy is a disorder of the central nervous system where the activity of nerve cells is disrupted. This disruption can cause seizures, loss of consciousness, and unusual sensations or behaviors. The precise cause of epilepsy is unknown, but there are scenarios that can trigger seizures in people who are diagnosed with the condition. For instance, drinking heavily or using recreational drugs can cause a seizure. Forgetting to take epilepsy medication or not getting enough sleep can also trigger a reaction. Also, when women are on their period, they are more prone to have a seizure.
While the exact cause of epilepsy is not known, seizures themselves are usually due to some sort of brain injury. Seizures can be caused by things like a brain tumor, head trauma, a stroke, meningitis, tuberous sclerosis, or low oxygen levels during birth.
Epilepsy symptoms can differ greatly from person to person, as some will experience convulsions, stiffening of the limbs, and twitching, and some may just stare blankly for a few moments and be temporarily confused.
Seizures can fall into two categories: partial (or focal seizures), which occur due to abnormal activity in just one portion of the brain, and generalized seizures, which affect all parts of the brain.
Within those two categories, there are other sub-categories, like clonic seizures, atonic seizures. These sub-categories help to differentiate symptoms, such as the location and severity of a seizure.
Epilepsy has several causes. These causes can be broadly classified into three main categories: genetic, cryptogenic and other causes.
Genetic predisposition results in what is called ‘idiopathic’ or ‘primary’ epilepsy. These forms of epilepsy occur when a mutation occurs in the genes that control the neurons in the brain and accounts for between 30% and 40% of all epilepsy cases. However, it is important to understand that not all genetic mutations result in epilepsy. In most cases, epilepsy develops when genetic predisposition work in combination with environmental conditions.
Brain conditions such as brain tumors, vascular malformations and strokes can cause damage to the brain, and brain damage can cause epilepsy. Brain damage resulting from stroke is the leading cause of epilepsy in adults aged 35 and above.
Prenatal brain damage is another common cause of epilepsy in infants. Certain factors can cause brain damage to the unborn baby resulting in epilepsy and other conditions like cerebral palsy. These factors include poor nutrition during pregnancy, oxygen deficiency and infections. Trauma to the head, developmental disorders and infectious diseases like viral encephalitis, HIV/AIDS and meningitis can also cause epilepsy.
Finally, in about 50% of cases, doctors may not be able to pinpoint the exact cause of epilepsy. The form of epilepsy that occurs in such cases is referred to ‘cryptogenic’ epilepsy – meaning the cause is hidden.
Even if a patient has mild symptoms, they usually need treatment since seizures can be especially dangerous during specific everyday activities, like driving.
Medications like Anticonvulsants and sedatives can help the majority of epilepsy patients. Some epileptic children may even grow out of the condition as they get older. However, some patients do not respond to medication or they never grow out of the condition. If that is the case, they may need to undergo a resection surgery, where the area of the brain that causes their seizures is removed.
Since it is caused by a variety of factors, epilepsy preventive measures mainly focus on avoiding the causative factors. Sleep plays an important role in preventing epileptic seizures. If you have had epileptic attacks in the past, ensure that you get adequate sleep to prevent their recurrence.
Additionally, where possible, quit alcohol consumption. Chronic alcohol consumption is one of the major triggers of epileptic attacks, so giving up the pint can greatly reduce your chance of seizure attacks. Next to alcohol is drug abuse: continued use of illicit drugs like cocaine (and some forms of medications) can provoke seizures.
Paying attention to neurological infections like meningitis, and seeking treatment in time, can also reduce the risk of brain damage and consequent epileptic attacks. Other epilepsy prevention measures include adequate stress management, proper diet during pregnancy and proper treatment of brain and neurological injuries.