What is epilepsy?
11/22/2021 by Karen Truitt, D.O.
Human brains are like computers in that there are electrical signals. When these signals become disrupted or overactive, a seizure can occur. Seizures occur in roughly 1 in 10 people.
Epilepsy is a neurological condition that causes recurrent seizures or increases the risk of recurrent seizures. Approximately 65 million people around the world have epilepsy. In the U.S., 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy at some point.
What causes epilepsy?
A single seizure can occur due to severe illness, high fever, infection, stroke, drug use, medication overdose, significant head injury, or alcohol withdrawal.
Epilepsy can be caused by an inherited tendency, a genetic cause; abnormality in brain development from birth; brain injury; stroke; dementia; or due to residual brain damage from previous brain infection, such as meningitis or encephalitis. However, the cause of epilepsy is not known in 6 of 10 people.
Can epilepsy be prevented?
Other than minimizing risk for head injury be wearing a helmet when appropriate and taking care of your health to minimize the risk of stroke, you cannot prevent epilepsy.
In someone who is diagnosed with epilepsy, it is important to avoid missing doses of anti-seizure medication and avoid sleep deprivation. It is also important to not consume excessive amounts of alcohol or use illicit drugs.
How is epilepsy treated?
People with epilepsy need to take an anti-seizure medication regularly to reduce the chance of a seizure. Two-thirds of people with epilepsy can control their seizures with medication.
Some people will develop epilepsy that is difficult to treat, and more than one anti-seizure medication may be required to control seizures. Epilepsy surgery or the need for an implanted device to control seizures is also needed sometimes.
Can someone with epilepsy lead a healthy life?
Most people with epilepsy will lead normal lives, and you will not know by looking at them that they have epilepsy. People with epilepsy can perform a variety of jobs. However, people with epilepsy generally cannot be an airline pilot or a truck driver.
If you're struggling with epilepsy, be sure to talk to your care team about treatment options.
Karen Truitt, D.O., is a Mayo Clinic neurologist. She practices in Integrated Community Specialties — Neurology and Spine Center in Rochester, Minnesota. She has a procedural practice at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. She completed her neurology residency at Mayo Clinic in Rochester followed by a clinical neurophysiology fellowship with emphasis on electroencephalography in epilepsy.