What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a common condition that affects the brain and causes frequent seizures. Seizures are bursts of electrical activity in the brain that temporarily affect how it works. They can cause a wide range of symptoms.
Epilepsy can start at any age, but usually starts either in childhood or in people over 60. It’s often lifelong but can sometimes get slowly better over time.
Types of Seizures
Below you will see the types of seizures that may occur. Each type has different characteristics:
Simple partial (focal) seizures or ‘auras’
A simple partial seizure can cause:
- a general strange feeling that’s hard to describe.
- a “rising” feeling in your tummy – like the sensation in your stomach when on a fairground ride.
- a feeling that events have happened before (déjà vu).
- unusual smells or tastes.
- tingling in your arms and legs.
- an intense feeling of fear or joy.
- stiffness or twitching in part of your body, such as an arm or hand.
You remain awake and aware while this happens.
These seizures are sometimes known as “warnings” or “auras” because they can be a sign that another type of seizure is about to happen.
Complex partial (focal) seizures
During a complex partial seizure, you lose your sense of awareness and make random body movements, such as:
- smacking your lips.
- rubbing your hands.
- making random noises.
- moving your arms around.
- picking at clothes or fiddling with objects.
- chewing or swallowing.
You will not be able to respond to anyone else during the seizure and you will not have any memory of it.
A tonic-clonic seizure, previously known as a “grand mal”, is what most people think of as a typical epileptic fit.
They happen in 2 stages – an initial “tonic” stage, shortly followed by a second “clonic” stage:
- tonic stage – you lose consciousness, your body goes stiff, and you may fall to the floor
- clonic stage – your limbs jerk about, you may lose control of your bladder or bowel, you may bite your tongue or the inside of your cheek, and you might have difficulty breathing
The seizure normally stops after a few minutes, but some last longer. Afterwards, you may have a headache or difficulty remembering what happened and feel tired or confused.
An absence seizure, which used to be called a “petit mal”, is where you lose awareness of your surroundings for a short time. They mainly affect children, but can happen at any age.
During an absence seizure, a person may:
- stare blankly into space
- look like they’re “daydreaming”
- flutter their eyes
- make slight jerking movements of their body or limbs
The seizures usually only last up to 15 seconds and you will not be able to remember them. They can happen several times a day.
A myoclonic seizure is where some or all of your body suddenly twitches or jerks, like you’ve had an electric shock. They often happen soon after waking up.
Myoclonic seizures usually only last a fraction of a second, but several can sometimes occur in a short space of time. You normally remain awake during them.
Atonic seizures cause all your muscles to suddenly relax, so you may fall to the ground.
They tend to be very brief and you’ll usually be able to get up again straight away.
Status epilepticus is the name for any seizure that lasts a long time, or a series of seizures where the person does not regain consciousness in between.
For many people with epilepsy, seizures seem to happen randomly.
But sometimes they can have a trigger, such as:
- A lack of sleep.
- Waking up.
- Drinking alcohol.
- Some medicines and illegal drugs.
- Flashing lights (this is an uncommon trigger).
Keeping a diary of when you have seizures and what happened before them can help you identify and avoid some possible triggers.
Remember, seizures are a medical emergency and need to be treated as soon as possible.
You can be trained to treat and manage epilepsy if you look after someone with epilepsy. If you have not had any training, call 999 for an ambulance immediately if someone has a seizure that has not stopped after 5 minutes.