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Characteristics

What is epilepsy?

  • Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder and affects people of all ages.
  • Epilepsy means the same thing as "seizure disorders." 
  • Epilepsy is characterized by unpredictable seizures and can cause other health problems.
  • Epilepsy is a spectrum condition with a wide range of seizure types and control varying from person-to-person.

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures. Many people with epilepsy have more than one type of seizure and may have other symptoms of neurological problems as well.

Sometimes EEG testing, clinical history, family history and outlook are similar among a group of people with epilepsy. In these situations, their condition can be defined as a specific epilepsy syndrome.

The human brain is the source of human epilepsy. Although the symptoms of a seizure may affect any part of the body, the electrical events that produce the symptoms occur in the brain. The location of that event, how it spreads and how much of the brain is affected, and how long it lasts all have profound effects. These factors determine the character of a seizure and its impact on the individual. 

Having seizures and epilepsy also can also affect one's safety, relationships, work, driving and so much more. How epilepsy is perceived or how people are treated (stigma) often is a bigger problem than the seizures.  

A person is diagnosed with epilepsy if they have had at least two seizures that were not caused by some known and reversible medical condition like alcohol withdrawal or extremely low blood sugar. The seizures in epilepsy may be related to a brain injury or a family tendency, but often the cause is completely unknown. The word "epilepsy" does not indicate anything about the cause of the person's seizures or their severity.

Reviewed by: Joseph I. Sirven, MD | Patricia O. Shafer, RN, MN on 1/2014

How common is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is the 4th most common neurological problem – only migraine, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease occurs more frequently.  There are many different ways to explain how often a disease occurs. Here’s a few points to consider.

  • 65 MILLION:   Number of people around the world who have epilepsy.
  • OVER 2 MILLION:   Number of people in the United States who have epilepsy.
  • 1 IN 26 people in the United States will develop epilepsy at some point in their lifetime.
  • BETWEEN 4 AND 10 OUT OF 1,000:   Number of people on earth who live with active seizures at any one time.
  • 150,000:   Number of new cases of epilepsy in the United States each year.
  • ONE-THIRD:   Number of people with epilepsy who live with uncontrollable seizures because no available treatment works for them.
  • 6 OUT OF 10:   Number of people with epilepsy where the cause is unknown.

Authored by: Patricia O. Shafer, RN, MN on 1/2014

Reviewed by: Joseph I. Sirven, MD | Patricia O. Shafer, RN, MN on 3/2014

 What is a seizure?

  • A seizure is a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain. 
  • A seizure usually affects how a person appears or acts for a short time.
  • Many different things can occur during a seizure. Whatever the brain and body can do normally can also occur during a seizure.

What happens in the brain during a seizure?

  • The electrical activity is caused by complex chemical changes that occur in nerve cells.
  • Brain cells either excite or inhibit (stop) other brain cells from sending messages. Usually there is a balance of cells that excite and those that can stop these messages. However, when a seizure occurs, there may be too much or too little activity, causing an imbalance between exciting and stopping activity. The chemical changes can lead to surges of electrical activity that cause seizures.
  • Seizures are not a disease in themselves. Instead, they are a symptom of many different disorders that can affect the brain. Some seizures can hardly be noticed, while others are totally disabling.

The nature of seizures varies because the lobes of the brain control different behaviors, movements and experiences.

Please connect with Epilepsy Foundation of Southeast Tennessee if you have any questions at all.