Most people know that epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes seizures. The seizures are not predictable and unprovoked. Some people have more control over their seizures than others. Epilepsy can adversely affect the person’s health and their relationships with family, friends and co-workers. It is not caused by another medical condition that can be reversed, and though some people may develop epilepsy after a brain injury, doctors do not know why most people develop the disorder.
A person may experience more than one kind of seizure, and their epilepsy might be joined by other neurological problems. Epilepsy can strike a person of any age, though it’s more common for it to develop in children and old people. Men are just slightly more at risk for epilepsy than women.
There are two major types of epileptic seizures. They can be focal or generalized, and the difference between them is where they originate in the person’s brain. These seizures are further divided into many subtypes.
For generalized onset seizures, signs are muscles that go into spasm, muscles that twitch, grow weak or tense up. The person can appear to stare into space. Focal onset seizures have the same types of motor symptoms as generalized onset seizures, though the person may perform movements such as hand clapping or chewing over and over. They also experience sometimes bizarre changes in their thinking, senses and thoughts. Some patients freeze up in what is called behavior arrest.
Dravet syndrome is a severe and rare type of epilepsy that begins in infancy. Most of the people who have this type of epilepsy have a genetic mutation, and they suffer from seizures that are both frequent and prolonged. They have delays in their cognitive and behavioral development, have trouble eating and sleeping and are subject to chronic infections. Along with their epileptic seizures, people with Dravet syndrome also have neurological problems that affect their body temperature and other systems controlled by their autonomic nervous system.
Children with Dravet syndrome must have round-the-clock care, and they sometimes die of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, or SUDEP. Because their seizures are so frequent and long-lasting, they are at greater risk of death from accidents than the general population.
Lennox-Gastaut syndrome is another severe type of epilepsy that starts in infancy. Children who have this syndrome have different types of seizures, and they are frequent and prolonged. Some seizures cause their muscles to go rigid or spasm while others cause the muscles to go limp, which can lead to uncontrollable falls in a child who has learned to walk. They stare into space, which is a symptom of atypical absence seizure, experience developmental delays and have trouble remembering, thinking and reasoning. Lennox-Gastaut syndrome is resistant to anti-seizure medications.
Unlike other types of epilepsy, doctors know what causes Lennox-Gastaut syndrome in most cases. In many patients, their brain cortex has not developed normally. Other causes are trauma, stroke and a lack of oxygen that happened before birth. Other reasons are brain infections such as meningitis and other rare diseases such as West syndrome or tuberous sclerosis. In other cases, the cause of Lennox-Gastaut syndrome is unknown.
MERRF, or Myoclonus Epilepsy with Ragged-Red Fibers is a very rare type of epilepsy that starts in childhood or adolescence. Some young adults also develop it. A child with MERRF has seizures that involve spasms of the arms, legs or body that are sudden but brief. They may also suffer from myopathy, other types of seizures and eventual dementia. Other signs and symptoms of MERRF are:
People with this type of epilepsy have muscle cells that have an odd appearance when stained and looked at under a microscope. They look, as the name says, like ragged red fibers. Scientists know that damage to the patient’s mitochondrial DNA leads to this type of epilepsy.
Benign Rolandic Epilepsy is a type of epilepsy. It is called benign because most children who have it grow out of it by the time they reach a adolescence. It gets its name because it affects the rolandic area of the brain. The seizures are unusual because they mostly occur at night. Other symptoms that accompany rolandic epilepsy are headaches and learning problems that go away once the seizures end. Some doctors believe benign rolandic epilepsy has a genetic component because it seems to run in families.