What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is caused by a disorder in the brain. Everything you think and do is controlled by the brain. Without this control you cannot move, hear, smell, see or even breathe. The brain consists of billions of brain cells, which constantly exchange messages by means of electrical signals and chemicals. Sometimes this system is disrupted and the brain cells experience a sudden burst of uncontrolled electrical discharge. This creates a kind of short circuit in the brain, which is manifested in fits. These fits are called epileptic seizures. In 2010, approximately 120,000 Dutch citizens had some form of epilepsy. Epilepsy can occur at any age. Seizures start occurring mostly around the age of 20 or over the age of 65.
What causes epilepsy?
No obvious cause can be found in most people with epilepsy. If epilepsy runs in the family, you are more likely to get it yourself. You can also develop epilepsy after suffering meningitis or brain damage, such as from an accident or a stroke. Epilepsy is diagnosed only after two or more seizures and the cause is shown to be a disorder in the brain. A febrile seizure in a child is not caused in the brain, but rather by a spike in body temperature. A febrile seizure is therefore not a sign of epilepsy.
If you have epilepsy, several factors increase the chance of a seizure, such as alcohol consumption and drug use, (over) fatigue or flashing lights.
Symptoms related to epilepsy
There are two types of epileptic seizures:
- Partial seizures
- Generalised seizures
In the event of a partial seizure, the short circuit begins in a part of the brain. In most cases, you do not lose consciousness and after the seizure you can describe what happened. Symptoms related to a partial seizure include:
- Tingling in one arm
- Seeing flashes of light
- Hearing or smelling something that is not there
- Involuntarily lip smacking
- Restless movements
A partial seizure can turn into a generalised seizure.
Generalised seizures involve all parts of the brain. You lose consciousness and cannot remember afterwards what happened. Sometimes the seizures are so short-lived that other people do not notice them. There are different types of generalised seizures, the most common being:
- Absence seizures. An absence seizure is also referred to as a petit mal. An absence seizure causes you to blank out for a few seconds. To outsiders it’s as if you have simply stopped what you are doing. Sometimes you roll your eyes. Absence seizures are most common in children.
- Myoclonic seizures. ‘Myo’ means muscle and ‘clonic’ means contraction. In the event of a myoclonic seizure you briefly lose consciousness and muscle spasms occur in your arms and/or legs.
- Tonic-clonic seizures. ‘Tonic’ means cramped, tense. A tonic-clonic seizure is also called a grand mal. During this type of seizure, all your muscles first tighten up: you tense up. Then all your muscles spasm, after which they all relax. During a tonic-clonic seizure you lose consciousness.
Most of these seizures are temporary. The seizure stops automatically and you regain consciousness. If a tonic-clonic seizure lasts for more than five minutes, bystanders should call the emergency line (112 in the Netherlands). If a seizure does not cease or you have successive seizures for more than half an hour without full recovery of consciousness between any of them, you are suffering a status epileptic. In that case, bystanders should always call for medical assistance.
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