When you’re running fast to win a race you probably want a burst of energy to carry you across the finish line first. But a burst of energy is not always a good thing. Intermittent bursts of energy in the brain can lead to seizures and affect your consciousness, bodily movements or sensations for a short period of time. Repeated seizures could be a sign of epilepsy.
Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that can cause temporary confusion, staring spells, uncontrollable jerking motions of the arms and legs, and unconsciousness. About half of epilepsy cases occur for no known reason. However, it can be caused by genetic factors, head trauma, certain medical disorders like a stroke, dementia, prenatal injury, and developmental disorders such as autism or Down syndrome. People at increased risk for epilepsy are men, young children, adults over the age of 65, those with a family history of the disorder, anyone who has had a stroke or brain infection, and those who experienced high fevers in childhood.
There are two main types of seizures with subcategories. Focal or partial seizures originate in one part of the brain. Simple focal seizures do not cause loss of consciousness, but may affect sensory perceptions and result in involuntary jerking of part of the body. Complex focal seizures change consciousness or awareness, and may result in non-purposeful movements, such as walking in circles or staring.
Generalized seizures appear to involve the whole brain. They include:
- Absence seizures, also called petit mal, which cause subtle body movements and brief loss of awareness
- Tonic seizures that result in muscles stiffening
- Clonic seizures associated with recurring, twitching muscle contractions
- Myoclonic seizures that appear as sudden, jerking movements in the arms and legs
- Atonic seizures that cause loss of normal muscle tone
- Tonic-clonic seizures, also called grand mal, which are intense episodes of body stiffening, shaking, loss of consciousness, and occasional loss of bladder control or tongue biting
Epilepsy can be diagnosed following blood tests as well as neurological and behavior examinations. Additional medical tests may be necessary, such as an electroencephalogram to check the electrical activity in the brain, or computerized tomography or magnetic resonance imaging to look for structural abnormalities like tumors, bleeding or cysts.
Treatment usually begins with medication to reduce the frequency and intensity of seizures. Surgery may be recommended if medicines are not effective. When tests show that seizures originate in a well-defined area that doesn’t interfere with vital functions, then that part of the brain may be surgically removed. If the affected part of the brain cannot be removed, doctors can make a series of small cuts to prevent seizures from spreading. Some people may be candidates for vagus nerve stimulation, which involves implanting a device to deliver electrical pulses to the brain. Children may be able to reduce seizures by following a ketogenic diet that requires eating foods high in fats and low in carbohydrates. For more information about epilepsy, talk with your doctor of visit the Epilepsy Foundation website at www.epilepsyfoundation.org.