What is Epilepsy?
A common misconception is that anyone who experiences a seizure has epilepsy, however to have an epilepsy diagnosis a person must meet specific criteria. The International League Against Epilepsy states that an epilepsy diagnosis can be given if a person has “at least two unprovoked seizures occur[ing] greater than 24 hours apart,” or if a person has one unprovoked seizure and the possibility of more seizures occurring over the next 10 years. Epilepsy is based in the brain, with seizures occurring because of unexpected neural activity in one or more regions of the brain. There are many reasons someone may have epilepsy, with common causes ranging from genetic predisposition to brain changes after injuries or infections.
What Epilepsy is Not:
Many people with epilepsy experience stigma, or negative feelings directed toward them because of their disease. This stigma comes from the general public just not knowing much about this disorder and believing some inaccurate things about epilepsy and/or seizures. First, epilepsy is not contagious. Second, it is not a mental or emotional illness, nor it is a spirit or demon taking over a person’s body. Third, while we are debunking myths, you cannot swallow your tongue during an epileptic seizure or any seizure for that matter.
What is an Epilepsy Syndrome?
An epilepsy syndrome is a way of classifying the diverse experiences of people with epilepsy into different groups based on the common signs and symptoms. Some of the signs and symptoms a doctor is looking for include: type of seizures, situations in which a seizure occurs, specific patterns on an EEG test, and much more. For a deeper dive into the types of epilepsy syndromes, check out the Epilepsy Foundation’s page.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for epilepsy currently, and for many, this is a lifelong condition. Most people can significantly reduce seizure occurrence through treatment, and by classifying which epilepsy syndrome you may be experiencing, your doctor will be better able to determine which treatment may be most successful. Some epilepsy syndromes such as childhood absence epilepsy are age dependent and, for most people, can “resolve” when a person grows out of the age for the epilepsy syndrome. A person’s epilepsy can also be considered resolved if they have not had a seizure for over 10 years and have been off all anti-seizure medications or other treatments for at least 5 years.
The most common test is an electroencephalogram (EEG) test. An EEG test is a noninvasive test that records the brain’s electrical activity through a series of wires and electrodes (button-like discs) that are attached to the outside of your head using a paste. Routine EEGs can be done in a doctor’s office, and extended EEGs (typically around 2 to 3 days) can be done either in a monitoring unit, or in the comfort of your own home. For more on what to expect during your test, click here.
Other tests that may be ordered to determine triggers or underlying causes for epilepsy may include:
- Blood tests
- CT scans
- Heart tests such as an EKG which can be done in the home with our Mobile Cardiac Telemetry test
- Sleep test
You doctor will be able to determine what types of testing you will need based on your symptoms.
Treatments for Epilepsy:
Your doctor will determine the best treatment for your specific type of epilepsy. Common treatments include anti-seizure medications (ASMs), diets and surgery. Each treatment option should be discussed with your doctor and your family. Sometimes multiple ASMs are necessary to achieve a seizure free status, though other times treatment only reduces the frequency of seizures. For a deeper look into treatment options, safety and tolerability, as well as common side effects, check out the Mayo Clinic’s blog.