What is epilepsy?

In your brain, nerve cells communicate using electrical signals. These signals help you do everything from walk to talk to think. Sometimes these signals act up and fire off unnecessary signals, causing a seizure. When someone has two or more seizures, they are described as having epilepsy.

Seizures can put people in dangerous situations where they are not aware of or are unable to control their bodies. It is important to see a doctor if you experience a seizure so your doctor can figure out what caused the seizure and how future seizures can be prevented.

Causes of epilepsy

Epilepsy has many causes. You may have been born with epilepsy. Sometimes a head injury, drinking alcohol or using drugs can cause epilepsy. Brain conditions like Alzheimer’s or a brain tumor can also cause epilepsy.

There’s no known cause of epilepsy for a majority of people.

Symptoms of epilepsy

Seizures don’t all look the same. Some common symptoms or signs of a seizure include:

  • Confusion
  • Not appearing to hear noises or words
  • Passing out
  • Trouble breathing or not breathing at all
  • Suddenly falling
  • Making jerky movements with arms or legs
  • Staring
  • Stiffening of the body
  • Losing control of bowel or bladder

You may be able to feel a seizure coming on. Before a seizure, you might feel a sense of déjà vu, fear or happiness. You could also notice changes in your vision or hearing or experience a tingling or numbness in part of your body.

If you feel a seizure coming on, alert someone and get to a safe place if possible.


Your doctor will work with you to find ways to control or stop your seizures so they don't disrupt your life. Many medicines can work to stop seizures. You may have to try a few medicines before you find one that is effective for you. When you take medicine, you will need to take it exactly as prescribed and on time every day.

Throughout your treatment for epilepsy, you will have tests including electroencephalograms (EEGs). These tests record your brain's electrical signals to look for any strange activity. The tests are painless, but can take a few hours and require you to stay up late. EEGs are also used to diagnose epilepsy.

You may also be treated using vagus nerve stimulation, which utilizes electricity to stimulate the brain through a nerve in your neck. The electrical pulses through the nerve can stop electricity in the brain that causes seizures and help stop seizures before they start. To use vagus nerve stimulation, you will need to have a small battery implanted in your chest. A wire goes from the battery to your nerve. To activate nerve stimulation, you will simply wave a magnet over your implant.

Rarely, your doctor may recommend surgery to treat your epilepsy. Most people with epilepsy do not have surgery. You may have surgery to remove the part of your brain that causes seizures or to disrupt harmful electricity in the brain that leads to seizures. Surgery is often the last option for controlling seizures if medicines and nerve stimulation don't work.

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