What is epilepsy?

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain. When someone has epilepsy, it means they have a tendency to have epileptic seizures.

Anyone can have a one-off seizure, but this doesn’t always mean they have epilepsy. Epilepsy is usually only diagnosed if a doctor thinks there’s a high chance that the person could have more seizures.

Epilepsy can start at any age and there are many different types. Some types of epilepsy last for a limited time and the person eventually stops having seizures. But for many people epilepsy is a life-long condition.

What are epileptic seizures?

Electrical activity is happening in our brain all the time, as the cells in the brain send messages to each other. A seizure happens when there is a sudden burst of intense electrical activity in the brain. This causes a temporary disruption to the way the brain normally works, so the brain’s messages become mixed up. The result is an epileptic seizure.

There are many different types of seizure. What happens to someone during a seizure depends on which part of their brain is affected, and how far the seizure activity spreads. During some types of seizure the person may remain alert and aware of what’s going on around them, and with other types they may lose awareness. They may have unusual sensations, feelings or movements. Or they may go stiff, fall to the floor and jerk.

Read more about different types of epileptic seizures or take our quick e-learning module to see what different types of seizures look like and learn what to do when someone has one.

How common is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is one of the most common serious neurological conditions in the world. It affects around 600,000 people in the UK. This means that almost 1 in 100 people in the UK have epilepsy. Around 87 people are diagnosed with epilepsy in the UK every day.

What causes epilepsy?

Possible causes of epilepsy include:

  • Brain damage, for example damage caused by a stroke, head injury or infection
  • Brain tumours
  • Problems with the way the brain developed in the womb
  • Genetic factors

But in over half of all people with epilepsy, doctors can’t find a cause. It’s thought that our genes play a part in who does and who doesn’t develop epilepsy. This may explain why some people develop epilepsy with no clear cause. Researchers have found a number of genes linked to particular types of epilepsy.  There are many types that doctors suspect are genetic, but they don’t yet know which genes are involved.

Find out more about epilepsy and inheritance.

How is epilepsy diagnosed?

The main way doctors diagnose epilepsy is by taking a detailed description of the seizures. They may also arrange for some tests to help give them more information about the possible type and cause of the epilepsy. This can also help rule out any other conditions that could be causing seizures. These tests can include blood tests, an EEG (recording of the brainwaves) and a brain scan. But there isn’t a single test that can prove if someone does or does not have epilepsy.  

Find out more about how epilepsy is diagnosed and the tests involved.

How is epilepsy treated?

The main treatment for epilepsy is epilepsy medicines. These are sometimes called anti-epileptic drugs or AEDs. The medicine doesn’t cure epilepsy, but helps to stop or reduce the number of seizures.

Many people find that their seizures stop with the first or second medicine they try. But some people need to try a few medicines before they find one that works well for them. And some people need to take 2 or more epilepsy medicines together.

If epilepsy medicine doesn’t work well for someone, their doctor might suggest other types of treatment. Other types of treatment include brain surgery, another type of surgery called vagus nerve stimulation, and a special diet called the ketogenic diet which is sometimes used for children.

Find out more about epilepsy treatment.

How can I help someone having a seizure?

Visit our first aid for seizures webpage.

Take our quick e-learning module to find out what to do when someone has a seizure.

What is living with epilepsy like?

Epilepsy affects everyone in different ways. Watch our videos of people sharing their experiences of living with epilepsy.

If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website. If you are unable to access the internet, please contact our Epilepsy Action freephone Helpline on 0808 800 5050.

Code: 
F092.04

This information has been produced under the terms of Epilepsy Action's information quality standards.

  • Updated May 2019
    To be reviewed May 2022

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