Understanding and living with epilepsy

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Few medical conditions manifest themselves more profoundly than epilepsy. A condition that produces seizures that affect a number of mental and physical functions, epilepsy affects nearly 3 million people in the United States.

Still, as prevalent as the condition might be, many people are still in the dark when it comes to knowledge about epilepsy, knowing merely that those with epilepsy suffer from unprovoked seizures from time to time. While any person who has two or more unprovoked seizures is considered to have epilepsy, there is more to epilepsy than the prevalence of seizures.

What is epilepsy?Epilepsy is a neurological condition that occurs when the normal functions of the brain are interrupted by intermittent bursts of electrical energy. Whereas normal brain function is made possible by millions of tiny electrical charges passing between nerve cells to all parts of the body, the bursts associated with epilepsy are far more intense than normal electrical charges. That intensity can affect a person's consciousness and bodily movements for a short period of time.

These physical changes are known as epileptic seizures. The seizures can be partial seizures, when the aforementioned bursts of energy occur in just one part of the brain, or generalized seizures, when the bursts affect nerve cells throughout the brain.

What causes epilepsy?
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, seizures are indicative of abnormal brain function, the cause of which is often unidentifiable. In fact, roughly 70 percent of people with epilepsy do not know why they have it. For the remaining 30 percent, the abnormal brain function could result from head injuries or a lack of oxygen during birth that damages the brain's electrical system. Other causes can include brain tumors, lead poisoning, development problems in the brain before birth, and infections such as meningitis or encephalitis.

What triggers a seizure?Many times, people with epilepsy can recognize things that might trigger a seizure. However, some people with epilepsy will have no such triggers. The triggers can also be tough to pinpoint, as two things that happen simultaneously are not necessarily related, making it difficult to identify if a given occurrence is actually a trigger for a seizure or simply a coincidence.

In general, the most common seizure trigger is failing to take medication, making it imperative that a person with a prescription for seizure medication to stick to their prescribed schedule.

Other factors that have been linked to seizures include hormone fluctuations, stress and sleep patterns. The Epilepsy Foundation notes that roughly 3 percent of people with epilepsy have seizures triggered by photosensitivity, or exposure to flashing lights at certain intensities or certain visual patterns. This is more common in children and adolescents, and typically becomes less frequent with age.

What are the symptoms of epilepsy?The primary symptom of epilepsy is seizures that repeatedly happen without warning. Unless treatment is sought and received, these seizures can escalate, becoming worse and more frequent over time.

Identifying seizures can depend on the type an individual experiences. The symptoms of seizures can include senses beginning to go somewhat haywire, such as noticing strange smells or sounds. Other symptoms include potential loss of muscle control, fainting (loss of consciousness), staring off into space, or the body beginning to twitch or jerk and possibly falling down. Not all seizures indicate epilepsy, but it remains important that anyone who experiences a seizure seek out the advice of a physician.

To learn more about epilepsy, visit the Epilepsy Foundation Web site at www.epilepsyfoundation.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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