Epilepsy is a nerve disorder that causes frequent seizures.

Epilepsy affects 3 million people, and more than 300,000 children younger than 14 have it. Some children eventually grow out it, but many children who are diagnosed with epilepsy continue to have seizures into adulthood. Seizure disorders like epilepsy may run in families.

Seizures are sudden, uncontrollable events that occur when the brain sends out abnormal electrical signals to the body. A person may feel sudden fear, anger, or panic or may notice changes in the way things looks, sound, smell, or feel before a seizure. After the seizure is over, weakness or confusion are common. Although epilepsy can't be cured, it can be controlled with medication.


Doctors don't know what causes epilepsy in 70 percent of cases. For the rest, the cause is related to something that affects how the brain works, such as head injuries, lack of oxygen during birth, or problems in brain development before birth, brain tumors, genetic conditions, infections like meningitis or encephalitis, and lead poisoning.

Some of the most common triggers for epileptic seizures include the following:

  • Changes in sleeppatterns, especially not getting enough sleep. It helps to follow a regular sleep schedule.

  • Not taking medicine as recommended. Many people with epilepsy take medicine to control seizures. Over time, some people are able to stop their medicine, but this should only be done with a doctor's approval.

  • Alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking can cause seizures.

  • Too much stress. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, may help.

  • Flashing lights. About 5 percent of people with epilepsy are sensitive to some types of flickering lights.

Epilepsy Symptoms

  • Staring
  • Jerking movements of the arms and legs
  • Stiffening of the body
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Breathing problems or breathing stops
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Falling suddenly for no apparent reason
  • Not responding to noise or words for brief periods
  • Appearing confused or in a haze
  • Sleepiness and irritability upon waking in the morning
  • Nodding the head
  • Periods of rapid eye blinking and staring


The full extent of the seizure may not be completely understood immediately after symptoms occur, but may be revealed with a full medical evaluation and diagnostic testing. And having a seizure may not mean a person has epilepsy. To confirm a diagnosis, a doctor may recommend several tests.

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): records the brain's continuous electrical activity using electrodes attached to the scalp.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan): uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body.

  • Lumbar puncture: requires that a special needle be placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.


Epilepsy is often treated with drugs that prevent seizures. When medications aren't successful, doctors may perform surgery to remove the areas of the brain in which seizures occur. Sometimes a specialized diet very high in fats and very low in carbohydrates is recommended. This diet has been found to be particularly effective for treating children with epilepsy.

Medical Reviewer: [Akin, Louise RN, BSN, Bowers, Nancy A. RN, BSN, MPH] Last Annual Review Date: 2009-09-25T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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Epilepsy affects as many people as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and cerebral palsy combined. It creates an estimated $15.5 billion in medical costs and lost earnings and production each year.