Epilepsy: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

People with epilepsy tend to have recurrent seizures (fits). The seizures occur because of a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain - there is an overload of electrical activity in the brain. This causes a temporary disturbance in the messaging systems between brain cells. During a seizure the patient's brain becomes "halted" or "mixed up".

Every function in our bodies is triggered by messaging systems in our brain. What a patient with epilepsy experiences during a seizure will depend on what part of his/her brain that epileptic activity starts, and how widely and quickly it spreads from that area. Consequently, there are several types of seizures and each patient will have epilepsy in his/her own unique way.

Types of seizures

There are three types of diagnoses a doctor might make when treating a patient with epilepsy:

Idiopathic - this means there is no apparent cause.

Cryptogenic - this means the doctor thinks there is most probably a cause, but cannot pinpoint it.

Symptomatic - this means that the doctor knows what the cause is.There are three descriptions of seizures, depending on what part of the brain the epileptic activity started:

Partial seizure

A partial seizure means the epileptic activity took place in just part of the patient's brain. There are two types of partial seizure:

Simple Partial Seizure - the patient is conscious during the seizure. In most cases the patient is also aware of his/her surroundings, even though the seizure is in progress.

Complex Partial Seizure - the patient's consciousness is impaired. The patient will generally not remember the seizure, and if he/she does, the recollection of it will be vague.

Generalized Seizure

A generalized seizure occurs when both halves of the brain have epileptic activity. The patient's consciousness is lost while the seizure is in progress.

Secondary Generalized Seizure

A secondary generalized seizure occurs when the epileptic activity starts as a partial seizure, but then spreads to both halves of the brain. As this development happens, the patient loses consciousness.

Symptoms of epilepsy

The main symptoms of epilepsy are repeated seizures. There are some symptoms which may indicate a person has epilepsy. If one or more of these symptoms are present a medical exam is advised, especially if they recur:

A convulsion with no temperature (no fever).Short spells of blackout, or confused memory.Intermittent fainting spells, during which bowel or bladder control is lost. This is frequently followed by extreme tiredness.For a short period the person is unresponsive to instructions or questions.The person becomes stiff, suddenly, for no obvious reasonThe person suddenly falls for no clear reasonSudden bouts of blinking without apparent stimuliSudden bouts of chewing, without any apparent reasonFor a short time the person seems dazed, and unable to communicateRepetitive movements that seem inappropriateThe person becomes fearful for no apparent reason, he/she may even panic or become angryPeculiar changes in senses, such as smell, touch and soundThe arms, legs, or body jerk, in babies these will appear as cluster of rapid jerking movements.

The following conditions need to be eliminated as they may present similar symptoms, and are sometimes misdiagnosed as epilepsy:

A high fever with epilepsy-like symptoms


Narcolepsy (recurring episodes of sleep during the day and often disrupted nocturnal sleep)

Cataplexy (a transient attack of extreme generalized weakness, often precipitated by an emotional response, such as surprise, fear, or anger; one component of the narcolepsy quadrad)

Sleep disorders


Panic attacks

Fugue states (a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia for personal identity)

Psychogenic seizures (a clinical episode that looks like an epileptic seizure, but is not due to epilepsy. The EEG is normal during an attack, and the behavior is often related to psychiatric disturbance, such as a conversion disorder)

Breath-holding episodes (when a child responds to anger there may be vigorous crying and subsequent apnea and cyanosis - the child then stops breathing and skin color changes with loss of consciousness).