Epilepsy is a group of conditions that have epileptic seizures as a symptom. If you have epilepsy it means you have had more than one epileptic seizure and could have more in the future.
Seizures can happen in any part of the brain. The brain is responsible for all the functions of our mind and body. What any of us experience during a seizure will depend on where in the brain that seizure is happening. Anyone can develop epilepsy at any time and although it can start at any age, it is more common in children and young people under 20 and people over 65.
The symptoms of epilepsy are epileptic seizures. Electrical activity is happening in the brain all the time. A seizure happens when there is a sudden burst of intense electrical activity. This causes a temporary disruption to the way the brain normally works, meaning that the brain’s messages become mixed up. The result is an epileptic seizure.
There are many different types of epileptic seizure and some people have more than one type of seizure. Seizures are often put into two groups – focal (partial) seizures and generalised seizures. In focal seizures, the epileptic activity starts in just one part of the brain. People may remain alert during this type of seizure or may not be aware of what is happening. People may have movements that they can’t control, unusual sensations or feelings. Sometimes onlookers may not be aware that someone is having a seizure. Focal seizures can be very brief or last for minutes.
Sometimes epilepsy activity starts as a focal seizure, spreads to the rest of the brain and becomes a generalised seizure. Generalised seizures involve epileptic activity in both halves of the brain. People usually lose consciousness during this type of seizure, but sometimes it can be so brief that no one notices. The muscles may stiffen and/or jerk. They may fall down.
In around six out of ten people, doctors don’t know the cause of their epilepsy. For many of these people it is just part of how they are made that makes them more likely to have a seizure.
Some people do have a cause for their epilepsy. One cause can be brain damage. There are a number of things that can cause brain damage including:
- a difficult birth
- a brain infection, such as meningitis
- a stroke
- a serious brain injury
The most common way epilepsy is treated is with medication. Epilepsy medication does not cure epilepsy, but aims to try and stop seizures happening. Epilepsy medication is taken at regular times every day. Up to seven out of every ten people with epilepsy have their seizures fully controlled (are ‘seizure free’) with the right epilepsy medicines. For people whose epilepsy doesn’t respond to medication, there may be other treatment options. These include vagus nerve stimulation, the ketogenic diet or brain surgery.
Approximately 600,000 people in the UK have epilepsy. This is 1:103 people.
About one in every 220 children and young people aged under 18 has epilepsy, around 64,000 people in this age group.
Around 87 people are diagnosed with epilepsy every day in the UK.
Impact on health and social care
Epilepsy affects people in different ways. Some people no longer have seizures because of their medication, so their epilepsy has little impact on their life. Other people still have seizures and these may affect their ability to drive, work or make the most of their relationships, education or leisure activities.
If a GP thinks a patient may have epilepsy, they will arrange for them to see a specialist. This is usually a neurologist (for adults) or paediatrician (for children). There may be other specialists involved in treatment, such as epilepsy specialist nurses, psychologists or psychiatrists.
Some people with epilepsy and associated or co-existing conditions or disabilities may need some level of supported or residential care.