What is epilepsy?
Epileptic seizures are sudden, often dramatic "electrical storms" in the brain that affect about 1% of the population.
There are several different types of epileptic seizures.
Some seizures cause convulsions with loss of consciousness and violent muscle spasms, while others may involve brief periods of "blanking out", or manifest simply as intermittent episodes of altered behaviour that last a few minutes at a time. The term epilepsy is used when seizures are recurrent over an extended time period.
The following examples describe two quite different settings in which seizures may occur:
A solitary seizure associated with alcohol withdrawal is best thought of as an isolated seizure with a clearly defined cause (withdrawal from alcohol), whereas a child with developmental delay and recurrent seizures as a result of birth injury to the brain should be regarded as having epilepsy.
People with epilepsy are frequently stigmatised by others for their disease. It is important to stress that the tendency to have seizures is quite distinct from mental retardation or low intelligence.
Although seizures are usually not life-threatening in themselves, the consequences of having a seizure (e.g. while driving or swimming) may be fatal. Convulsive seizures are frightening events to experience, either directly or as an onlooker. The first step towards taking control is knowing more about seizures and the ways they can be managed.
Professor Jonathan Carr, FCP (SA) Neurology, PhD. Head Division of Neurology, Tygerberg Hospital and University of Stellenbosch, Cape Town. February 2015.