Charles Dickens made history as an author. Vincent van Gogh painted masterpieces that sell for millions of dollars. Cyclist Marion Clignet won a silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. What do these people have in common? Besides being famous and successful, each of them has (or had) a condition called epilepsy (eh-puh-lep-see).

What Is Epilepsy?

It's a strange word, isn't it? Epilepsy comes from a Greek word meaning "to hold or seize," and people who have epilepsy have seizures. You might also hear a seizure called a convulsion, fit, or spell.

Seizures happen when there is unusual electrical activity in the brain. Your brain cells are constantly sending out electrical signals that travel along nerves to the rest of the body.

These signals tell the muscles to move. During a seizure, a person's muscles tighten and relax rapidly or stop moving completely. Seizures come on suddenly, and people who have them cannot control their muscles while they are having a seizure. If too many brain cells are sending signals at the same time, it causes an overload and a person may pass out and shake all over. People who have epilepsy may have seizures only once in a while or as frequently as every day.

What's a Seizure?

Most seizures occur without warning, although some people have a funny feeling, an upset stomach, or a weird smell or taste right before a seizure. This is called an aura. Others find that certain things may bring on a seizure, like not getting enough sleep or playing video games.

Even though a seizure may look scary, it's not painful. During a seizure, the person may fall down, shake, stiffen, throw up, drool, urinate (pee), or lose control of their bowels. Other seizures are less dramatic. The person may just stare into space or have jerking movements in one part of the body. When the seizure is over, the person may feel sleepy and won't remember what happened.

Who Has Epilepsy?

About 2 million Americans have epilepsy, including boys and girls and people of all races and ages. Seizures can start at any age, but often they begin before age 15 or after age 65. Doctors often cannot explain why a person has epilepsy. They do know that epilepsy is not contagious - you can't catch it from somebody. Epilepsy is not passed down through families (inherited) in the same way that blue eyes or brown hair are. But if somebody's mom or dad or brother or sister has epilepsy, then he or she has a slightly higher risk for epilepsy than somebody whose family has no history of seizures.

How Can Doctors Help?

If a person has a seizure, doctors may do some tests, such as a CAT scan, an MRI, or an electroencephalogram (EEG). A CAT scan or MRI help a doctor look at a person's brain and an EEG records brain waves. Don't worry - these tests don't hurt at all. Blood tests may also be done.

All of these tests can help doctors try to find out what caused the seizure and if a person might have more seizures. But sometimes seizures are a one-time thing for a kid. Half of the kids who have one seizure never have another one.

For people who are diagnosed with epilepsy, most of them can control their seizures by taking medicines. As they get older, many kids with epilepsy get better and can stop taking medicine. For some kids, it may be difficult to get the seizures under control. A special diet or surgery may be needed.

Are Kids With Epilepsy Different?

People who have epilepsy may need to be careful in places where they could get hurt if they have a seizure, like a high place or in the bathtub. And they may not be able to do certain sports, such as boxing or scuba diving.

But other than that, people with epilepsy can live normal lives and do what everyone else does. They can go to school, attend college, and get jobs. They can get married and have children. Epilepsy does not limit a person's ability, but it may make a person feel different. So, if you know someone who has it, you can help a lot by just being a good friend.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2007
Originally reviewed: Michael Goodman, MD

Related Sites

Epilepsy Foundation

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