Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that causes unprovoked and recurrent seizures, periods of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Anybody can develop epilepsy, but it’s more often found in young children and older adults, with slightly more males than females affected. In the United States, about three million adults and about 470,000 children suffer from the disorder.
Epilepsy is treatable, and most people can lead normal lives if their seizures are well controlled. In some cases, children with epilepsy outgrow it as they get older.
At Memphis Neurology, with locations in Germantown, Tennessee, and Southaven, Mississippi, our expert team of neurologists offers a wide range of epilepsy monitoring and treatment services, delivered with a holistic approach. If you’ve been diagnosed with epilepsy, or if you think you may have the disorder, here’s what you need to know.
The nature of epilepsy
Doctors generally classify seizures in two categories, depending on where the abnormal activity begins.
1. Focal seizures
Focal seizures (also known as partial seizures) result from activity within a single area of the brain. They can occur without a loss of consciousness or with impaired awareness, and the symptoms vary depending on which type you have. Symptoms can be confused with other neurological disorders, including narcolepsy, migraine, and various mental illnesses, so it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis from your neurologist.
2. Generalized seizures
Generalized seizures appear to affect all areas of the brain. They can be subdivided into six different types:
- Absence seizures, previously known as petit mal seizures
- Tonic seizures
- Atonic seizures, also known as drop seizures
- Clonic seizures, which usually affect the neck, face, and arms
- Myoclonic seizures
- Tonic-clonic seizures, previously known as grand mal seizures
Seek immediate medical help for the epileptic if:
- Their seizure lasts longer than five minutes
- A second seizure follows immediately after the first
- Their breathing or consciousness doesn't return once the seizure stops
- They have a high fever or experience heat exhaustion
- They have diabetes.
- They’re injured during the seizure
Always seek medical advice if you experience a seizure for the first time.
The causes of epilepsy
About half of epileptics have no identifiable cause for their condition. For the other half, causes may arise from:
- Genetic influence: Some types of epilepsy run in families; some genes make a person more sensitive to environmental triggers
- Head trauma
- Brain conditions: including tumors and strokes, the latter being the leading cause in adults over 35
- Infectious diseases: including meningitis, AIDS, and viral encephalitis
- Prenatal injury: including infection, poor nutrition, or oxygen deficiency
- Developmental disorders: including autism and neurofibromatosis
Symptoms of epilepsy
Epilepsy symptoms vary greatly depending on the type of seizure you have. Here are symptoms you might have, grouped by seizure type.
Focal seizures without loss of consciousness
- Altered emotions
- Changes to the way things look, feel, smell, taste, or sound
- Involuntary jerking
- Sensory symptoms, including dizziness, tingling and seeing flashing lights
Focal seizures with loss of awareness
- Staring into space
- Not responding to the environment
- Performing repetitive movements
- Walking in circles
- Absence seizures: staring into space, eye blinking, and lip-smacking
- Tonic seizures: muscle stiffening in back, arms, and legs, causing you to fall
- Atonic seizures: loss of muscle control, causing you to collapse
- Clonic seizures: repeated or rhythmic, jerking muscle movements affecting the face, neck, and arms
- Myoclonic seizures: sudden brief jerks or twitching of arms and legs
- Tonic-clonic seizures: abrupt loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, loss of bladder control, or biting your tongue
Here at Memphis Neurology, we first take a conservative approach to treatment, which, in this case, is prescribing anti-epileptic or anti-seizure medications. Many people can reduce or even eliminate their seizures with a single medication, but others may need to take a combination. These will either eliminate the seizures entirely or decrease their frequency and intensity.
If medications don’t work for you, we can try alternative therapies. One possibility is vagus nerve stimulation. We implant a device under the skin of your chest, which sends bursts of electrical energy through the vagus nerve in your neck to your brain. Many people see a 20-40% decrease in seizure frequency.
Another possibility is a ketogenic diet, one that's high in fats and low in carbohydrates. There are side effects, so you’ll need to be medically supervised.
A third possibility is deep brain stimulation, where surgeons implant electrodes into a specific part of your brain, usually the thalamus. The electrical impulses work much like those used in vagus nerve stimulation.
Are you concerned that you or a family member might have epilepsy? Memphis Neurology can get you back on track. Give us a call at either of our locations or schedule a consultation online.