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Epilepsy and Seizures FAQs

Reviewed by Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD

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Q:If you have had a seizure, it means you have epilepsy. True or False?

A:False. Having a single seizure does not necessarily mean that a person has epilepsy. Epilepsy is a chronic neurological condition characterized by recurrent seizures.

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Q:What is a powerful behavioral trigger of seizures?

A:Lack of sleep. Seizures are often triggered by factors such as lack of sleep, alcohol consumption, stress, or hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle. Sleep deprivation in particular is a universal and powerful trigger of seizures.

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Q:What is the most common type of seizure?

A:The grand mal seizure. The grand-mal seizure is the most common, the most dramatic, and best known. During grand-mal seizures, the patient loses consciousness and usually collapses. Injuries and accidents may occur, such as tongue biting and urinary incontinence.

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Q:Epilepsy was first discovered in 1950. True or False?

A:False. Some 3,000 years ago people thought that epileptic seizures were caused by demons or gods. However, in 400 B.C., Hippocrates suggested that epilepsy was a brain disorder -- and we now know that he was right.

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Q:Do patients with epilepsy often suffer with other conditions?

A:Yes. Depression, anxiety, and migraine headaches are often seen in people with epilepsy. Studies indicate an association between migraine headache and epilepsy. Also found to be associated with epilepsy are mood disorders including anxiety, ADHD, psychosis, depression, and personality disorders.

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Q:What is the underlying cause of epileptic seizures?

A:Abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Seizures occur because the brain becomes irritated and an "electrical storm" occurs. This "electrical storm" occurs because the normal connections between the cells in the brain do not function properly. This causes the brain to try to shut down because of the electrical surge. Irritation of the brain tissue has many causes such as lack of oxygen before, during or after birth, brain tissue malformations, brain infections, and other chemical, genetic and metabolic problems.

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Q:There are no medical tests to diagnose epilepsy. True or False?

A:False. An EEG (electroencephalogram) is a test that can help diagnose epilepsy by recording electrical signals in the brain. The activity is detected by sensors placed on the patient's scalp and transmitted to a polygraph that records the activity.

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Q:Epilepsy treatment usually includes fasting. True or False?

A:False. When fasting, the body creates ketones, a by-product of fat-burning metabolism. Although fasting or a fat-rich diet has been used to try to control epilepsy and seizures, it is not a common way to treat patients. The NIH is examining the safety and effectiveness of such treatments currently since seizures often lessen or disappear during periods of fasting in some individuals with epilepsy. Other more common treatments include medications and surgery. The main treatments of epilepsy are antiepileptic drugs (about 70% to 80% of patients).

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Q:Some seizures are a medical emergency and 911 should be called. True or False?

A:True. Most seizures aren't an emergency. They usually stop on their own with no permanent ill effects, but there are times when 911 should be called such as: - If this is a person's first seizure - If the seizures are longer than normal - If the seizures repeat over a few minutes - If consciousness is not regained

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