Understanding Epilepsy

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a medical condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical functions. It’s also called a seizure disorder. When a person has two or more unprovoked seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy.

An uncomplicated seizure does not seem to cause permanent harm. People with epilepsy who have had many uncomplicated seizures report no changes in mental functioning.

What causes epilepsy?

A child’s brain contains billions of nerve cells. They communicate with each other through tiny electrical charges that fire on and off in random fashion. When some or all of these cells suddenly begin to fire together, a wave of electrical energy sweeps through the brain, causing a seizure.

Seizure Types

Generalized Seizures:
  • Tonic-Clonic or Grand Mal Seizure (Loss of consciousness)
    This is the most common and recognized generalized seizure. The person becomes stiff and falls to the ground. Their teeth clench and the arms (usually the legs, as well) begin to jerk rapidly and rhythmically. The seizure usually lasts no more than a few minutes, after which the jerking slows and stops.
  • Absence or Petit Mal Seizure (Loss of consciousness)
    During an absence seizure it might seem like the person is daydreaming. However, in an absence seizure the person cannot be made alert or woken up. They are unconscious for a moment and totally unaware of what is happening around them. These seizures usually last a few seconds.
  • Myoclonic Seizure or Jerks (No loss of consciousness)
    Myoclonic means a jerking or twitching of a muscle. During this seizure brief shock-like jerks of a muscle or group of muscles occur. These usually involve the neck, shoulders and upper arms. Myoclonic jerks occur most frequently in the morning and often occur in clusters. Although the seizures are brief, they can be extremely frustrating, resulting in spilt drinks or similar incidents.
  • Tonic and Atonic Seizure (Loss of consciousness)
    Tonic seizures result in all muscles contracting. The body stiffens and the person will fall over if unsupported. Atonic seizures, in a way, are the opposite of tonic seizures. Instead of the body going stiff, all muscle tone is lost and the person simply drops to the ground. Although the person falls heavily, they are usually able to get up again right away. When the body goes limp it inevitably falls forward, causing potential head injuries.
  • Status Epilepticus (Loss of consciousness)
    This event is characterized by frequent, long-lasting seizures without regaining consciousness between the start and end of one or more seizures.
Partial Seizures:
  • Simple Seizure (No loss of consciousness)
    In these types of seizures, even though a person’s consciousness is not impaired, it does not mean that the person experiencing this type of seizure is able to stop or control the seizure. Simple partial seizures can be different depending on where in the brain the epileptic activity is occurring. Examples of symptoms are the movement of a limb, tingling, experiencing a smell or taste, and going pale or sweating.
  • Complex Seizure (Impaired consciousness)
    Because a person’s consciousness is impaired in this type of seizure, the person will not remember the seizure or their memory of it will be distorted. Others may believe the person is fully aware of what they are doing, but they are not. Usually the person loses awareness and stares blankly. Most people move their mouth, pick at the air or their clothing, or repeat other purposeless actions. These movements are called “automatisms.” Complex partial seizures usually last between 30 seconds and 2 minutes.

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Understanding Epilepsy