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A common neurological condition, epilepsy affects the brain and causes seizures. Learn the facts and find out how it’s diagnosed.


As a neurological condition, epilepsy is often misunderstood. “People often think epilepsy is one of the worst conditions to be diagnosed with and compare it to a death sentence,” Ilo E. Leppik, MD, adjunct professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, director of research at MINCEP Epilepsy Care in Minneapolis, and author of Epilepsy says. “Yet with today’s medical treatments, this condition can be very well controlled, allowing people with epilepsy to live relatively normal lives.”

Epilepsy Explained

Epileptics endure brief interruptions in the normal electrical functioning of the brain. When it affects the entire brain, it is considered generalized epilepsy, but if it only affects a portion, it is called partial epilepsy. During these episodes, or seizures, powerful surges of electrical activity in the brain affect sensations, movements, and consciousness. Known in clinical terms as a seizure disorder, epilepsy is defined when a person has two or more seizures that seemly occur out of the blue, with no obvious cause. However, not everyone who experiences seizures is an epileptic. According to Dr. Leppik, multiple triggers can bring on seizures, including reactions to medication, sleep deprivation, and heart conditions.

The Demographics of Epilepsy

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, millions of Americans live with the condition, and it’s more common than most of realize. Epilepsy strikes both sexes and can show up at any age, but it’s usually diagnosed in childhood and older adulthood. Assistant professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine and director of epilepsy services at Boston Medical Center, Georgia Montouris, MD says, “The older you get, the higher your risk becomes.”

Causes of Epilepsy

Why do some people develop epilepsy while others don’t? So far, researchers haven’t found concrete answers and the causes remain unknown. Some situations like birth trauma, brain malformations, brain tumors, head trauma, hemorrhage, stroke, infections involving the brain – meningitis and encephalitis, genetic syndromes, and blood vessel abnormality could be to blame, says Dr. Montouris.

Diagnosing Epilepsy

With numerous possible causes of epilepsy, doctors will complete a thorough medical history before making a diagnosis. Physicians often treat the condition based only on the patient’s history, but other effective tools are available. There is a wide variety when it comes to forms of epilepsy, and the type of testing used will depend on which form is suspected. Some diagnostic tools frequently used are magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalographs (records brain waves and alerts physicians to patterns that could indicate seizures), computerized tomography, and occasionally positive emission tomography.

Preventing Epilepsy

Unlike other diseases, where changes in lifestyle and habits can significantly reduce the risk of developing the disease, there is little a person can do to prevent epilepsy. It isn’t cancer or heart disease, and any one person can be affected as easily as the next. However, Montouris cautions, “Protect your head as much as possible, which means wearing a helmet whenever you ride a bike, ski, or horseback ride — and that means the whole family, not just your kids.”

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