/ by Zabeen Mahuwala, MD
Did you know that epilepsy affects more than 3.4 million Americans? Even though epilepsy is a common condition, it is still a complex diagnosis that requires special care.
If you or a loved one is facing an epilepsy diagnosis, you may have a lot of questions. Here are some answers that can help you on your journey.
What are the symptoms of epilepsy?
The main symptom of epilepsy is repeated seizures that happen without warning due to sudden rush of electrical activity in the brain. Seizures may cause problems with muscle control, movement, speech, vision or awareness.
Without treatment, seizures may continue and become worse and happen more often over time.
There are different kinds of seizures, so you may experience different symptoms. The following may occur:
- Your senses may not work right. For example, you may notice strange smells or taste or sounds.
- You may lose control of your muscles or perform repetitive movements.
- You may fall down, and your body may twitch or jerk.
- You may stare off into space blankly.
- You may lose awareness and bite your tongue.
How is it treated?
First, your doctor will figure out what type of epilepsy and what kinds of seizures you have. Treatment that controls one kind of seizure may have no effect on other kinds.
Treatment can reduce or prevent seizures in most people who have epilepsy, which can improve quality of life. If a cause to your epilepsy is found, treating the cause may help prevent further seizures. Controlling your epilepsy also lowers your risk of falling and other complications that can happen when you have a seizure.
Early treatment may reduce the risk that you will go on to have more frequent and severe seizures. You are more likely to have more seizures if you've had two or more seizures. Doctors usually recommend treatment in these cases.
Initial treatment for epilepsy depends on the severity, frequency, and type of seizures and whether a cause for your condition has been found. Medicine is the first and most common approach. Medications don't cure epilepsy, but they do help prevent seizures in more than half of the people who take them.
It may take time for you and your doctor to find the right combination, schedule and dosage of medicines. The goal is to prevent seizures and cause as few side effects as possible.
Are there treatments other than medication?
If two or more medicines do not control your seizures, your doctor may try one or more other treatments. Alternative treatments include:
- Surgery to remove damaged or the area of brain tissue where seizures start. Surgery isn't used just as a last resort to treat epilepsy. Brain surgery may sound frightening, but it can reduce seizures that are harmful, severe, or frequent or that don't respond to medicines.
- A special diet called the ketogenic diet. With this diet, you eat a lot more fat and less carbohydrates. This diet reduces seizures in some children who have epilepsy.
- A device called a vagus nerve stimulator. Your doctor implants the device under your skin near your collarbone. It sends weak signals to the vagus nerve in your neck and to your brain to help control seizures.
- A device called a responsive neurostimulation system. Your doctor implants the device inside your skull. It senses when a seizure may be starting and sends a weak signal to prevent the seizure.
- A device called deep brain stimulator. Your doctor implants the device under your collarbone and wires that run from the chest to specific area in the brain. It send signals directly to the brain and helps to control your seizures.
Is epilepsy fatal?
Death from epilepsy is rare.
On occasion, people with epilepsy may die for no clear reason – this is called Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP). People may die from SUDEP during or after a seizure, but doctors are still not sure why exactly it occurs.
It’s key to take your medication as prescribed and to regularly check in with your doctor to try to help reduce your risk for SUDEP.
Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.