In the UK, there are over 600,000 people with epilepsy.
Having epilepsy always means that you have a tendency to have epileptic seizures. It is not necessarily a life-long diagnosis. And doctors may consider that you no longer have epilepsy if you go without seizures for a long enough time.
Electrical activity is happening in our brain all the time. A seizure happens when there is a sudden burst of intense electrical activity in the brain. This is often referred to as epileptic activity. The epileptic activity causes a temporary disruption to the way the brain normally works, so the brain’s messages become mixed up. The brain is responsible for all the functions of your body. What happens to you during a seizure will depend on where in your brain the epileptic activity begins, and how widely and quickly it spreads.
For this reason, there are many different types of seizure, and each person will experience epilepsy in a way that is unique to them.
Epilepsy Action has more information about different types of seizures.
The causes of epilepsy
There are many types of epilepsy. Some types start when you are very young, and some in later life. Some types last for a short time and other types can last for the whole of your life.
Sometimes the reason epilepsy develops is clear. It could be because of brain damage caused by a difficult birth, a severe blow to the head, a stroke, or an infection of the brain such as meningitis. Very occasionally the cause is a brain tumour. In around six out of 10 people, doctors don’t know the cause of their epilepsy. For many of these people, it is just part of how they are made that makes them more likely to have a seizure.
How epilepsy is diagnosed
There isn’t a test that can prove that you do or you don’t have epilepsy. Tests such as the electroencephalogram (EEG) – which records brainwave patterns - can give doctors useful information. A diagnosis of epilepsy should be made by a doctor with specialist training in epilepsy.
To make a diagnosis, an epilepsy specialist will use their expert knowledge and look at the information from different tests. They will ask you what happens before, during and after your seizures. They might also want to speak to someone else who has seen your seizures.
Epilepsy is currently defined as the tendency to have recurrent seizures. It is unusual to be diagnosed with epilepsy after only one seizure. Around five people in every 100 will have an epileptic seizure at some time in their life. Out of these five people, around four will go on to develop epilepsy.
Epilepsy Action has more information about how epilepsy is diagnosed.
Treatment of epilepsy
Epilepsy is usually treated with epilepsy medicines. You may also hear these referred to as anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs). Epilepsy medicines act on the brain, trying to reduce seizures or stop seizures from happening. Lots of people with epilepsy find that when they have the right medicine, they have fewer or no seizures. In the UK 70 per cent (seven out of ten) of people with epilepsy could be seizure free with the right treatment.
Epilepsy Action has more information about epilepsy medicines.
If epilepsy medicines don’t work very well for a person, there are some other treatments that may be helpful. These include brain surgery, vagus nerve stimulation and the ketogenic diet.
If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website. See What is epilepsy?
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Updated May 2013To be reviewed May 2016