What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition characterized by recurrent seizures, which are brief changes in the brain’s normal functioning. Also known as seizure disorders, epilepsy affects over two million Americans, or approximately one percent of the population. Epilepsy can occur for a multitude of reasons, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, social status, or general intelligence. Approximately fifty percent of all new cases of epilepsy begin in childhood.

What is a Seizure?

The electrical system in the brain is very specific. Considering that the brain controls everything we do, see, feel, taste, or hear, any malfunction in the brain can cause a person to look or act differently for a period of time. When this abnormal functioning occurs, the result is a seizure. Depending upon where in the brain the seizure occurs and how much of the brain is affected by the abnormal discharge, a person can experience one of over twenty different types of seizures.

Seizures are classified in two categories: Generalized and Partial.

  • “Generalized” refers to seizures in which the entire brain is affected by the abnormal activity from the onset of the seizure. The various types of Generalized Seizures are Tonic Clonic, Absence, Myoclonic, and Atonic.
  • “Partial” means that the seizure affects a part of, rather than the entire brain. Various types of Partial Seizures are Simple Partial, and Complex Partial.

The electrical discharge which may initially be a partial seizure can spread to affect the entire brain, at which point the seizure is considered to be “secondarily generalized”.

What is a Tonic Clonic Seizure?

This is the seizure that most people associate with the word epilepsy. It is the most dramatic in appearance. The person may cry out at the onset of the seizure, at which time consciousness and awareness are lost. The body then goes through a series of muscular stiffening and relaxation (convulsions). It is not uncommon for the person to salivate excessively, turn a little blue, or lose control of bladder and/or bowel function. The seizure typically last from a few seconds to five minutes. Counsciousness returns after the seizure although the person may feel fatigued or achy. These seizures were once known as Grand Mal seizures.

What is an Absence Seizure?

Most common in children, this type of seizure usually consists of nothing more than a blank stare, or perhaps some eye-blinking or mouth movements. Absence seizures, once called Petit Mal seizures, typically last only a few seconds, and the person regains full consciousness immediately afterward. Often the seizure will occur without being noticed at all.

What is a Myoclonic Seizure?

Myoclonic seizures consist of a massive muscular jerking, and are typically very brief in duration. Full consciousness is usually resumed immediately after the seizure although some people may complain of stiffness or soreness in the muscles afterward.

What is an Atonic Seizure?

Also called Drop Attacks or Akinetic seizures, these brief seizures can be mistaken for fainting spells, as the person usually loses muscle tone and falls immediately. In approximately ten seconds to a minute, the person regains awareness. More problematic than the seizure itself are any injuries the person may have sustained as the result of the seizure.

What is a Simple Partial Seizure?

With simple partial seizures, the person usually retains all awareness and consciousness, and typically experiences a change in his/her perceptions or senses. For example, the person may see, hear, taste or smell something that isn’t really there. Others may feel an unexplained emotion, such as sudden elation, sadness, or anger. Some people claim they just feel differently than they did before, although they’re not always able to put into words what they’re experiencing. Sometimes these seizures precede those in which awareness is lost, and are often referred to as an aura. Another type of simple partial seizure involves involuntary movement or jerking of an extremity such as fingers, toes, hands, etc. The electrical disturbance is limited to a certain location in the brain, but can spread to become a fully convulsive seizure.

What is a Complex Partial Seizure?

Although this is the most common seizure type, complex partial seizures are often the most misunderstood and misidentified. Although complex partial seizures vary greatly from one individual to the next, a specific pattern is usually established in each person. Some attributes of complex partial seizures include picking at clothing, nodding repetitively, saying inappropriate things, lip-smacking or chewing, excessive blinking or eye rolling, and other misdirected actions. The person may look aware, but is not. This type of seizure has been frequently mistaken for intoxication on alcohol or drugs. The seizure usually lasts only a few minutes, although post seizure confusion can be substantial.