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When the Brain Goes Haywire: A Look at Epilepsy

When the Brain Goes Haywire: A Look at Epilepsy

Imagine going about your day when suddenly, seemingly without warning, you begin to feel woozy, confused and disorientated. Soon afterward, you essentially lose control of your body, succumbing to an uncontrollable barrage of symptoms that render you all but helpless. Furthermore, imagine that these episodes occur over and over and over again, with no apparent rhyme or reason. For the over 2 million Americans suffering with epilepsy, such a scenario is all too real. Epilepsy affects people of all ages, and its symptoms can be terrifying for both the patient and his or her loved ones. Despite its chilling effects on the human body, medical science has produced a number of medications that effectively curtail epilepsy, providing much-needed relief for millions of patients worldwide.

Overactive Neurons: Not A Good Thing

The many problems associated with epilepsy all result from recurring seizures. You don’t need a doctorate of medicine to know that seizures can be devastating to the body; in fact, you may have heard someone jokingly talk about “having a seizure” when recounting their negative reactions to certain past events. Experiencing a seizure, however, is no laughing matter, and suffering them on a repeated basis can make life downright miserable.

Throughout the day, your brain is constantly sending electrical messages to its spinal cord through its neurons cells. Under normal circumstances, only a limited number of neurons transmit messages at any given time. For those with epilepsy, far too many of these neurons attempt to fire signals at once, resulting in seizures.

There are actually several different kinds of seizures caused by epilepsy, all of which fall into one of two categories – partial seizures and generalized seizures. Each type of seizure is further detailed in the proceeding section:

Partial Seizures

A partial seizure involves irregular electronic activity in only one side of your brain; these sections are often referred to as cerebral hemispheres. Most of the seizures that strike epilepsy patients fall into this category. The effects of a partial seizure can vary widely; as a result, doctors label such events as either simple partial seizures, complex partial seizures or partial seizures with secondary generalization.


Simple Partial Seizures – As its name suggests, simple partial seizures are the mildest type of seizures to affect epilepsy patients, though suffering through one is still not a pleasant experience. These seizures are not severe enough to cause a loss of consciousness, and the patient remains aware of his or her condition throughout the ordeal.

During the seizure, the patient often senses a strange smell and/or an unusual taste in their mouth, and may also become confused or anxious. In some causes, muscles and tissues connected to the seizure-stricken part of the brain will begin to tighten, tingle or move involuntarily. These same areas might also feel fatigued and weak in the minutes following the seizure. In addition to having a relatively minor impact on the body, a simple partial seizure might be over by the time a patient realizes what’s happening; these seizures usually last for only 30 to 60 seconds.


Complex Partial Seizures – The word “aura” generally has a positive connotation, but the auras associated with complex partial seizures are nothing to look forward to. In this case, the term “aura” is used to describe the warning signs that precede this type of seizure, which include abnormal tastes, smells and sounds. The patient may also see lines, sports or other bizarre objects in the moments before the seizure hits. These physical symptoms are often accompanied by a sense of dread and déjà vu, as the patient begins to sense that a seizure (or at least something bad) is about to occur.

When the seizure finally begins, the patient often starts to lose consciousness, though usually not completely. Instead, the seizure victim remains technically awake, but is unable to perceive or respond to the environment surrounding them. This symptom helps explain why, after fully regaining consciousness, many people do not recall suffering a complex partial seizure.

While in this zoned-out state, patients also tend to experience spasmodic bodily movements called automatisms. Some common automatisms include lip smacking, chewing, swallowing, picking and hand wringing. Fortunately, complex partial seizures are overly fairly quick, generally lasting from 30 seconds to two minutes.


Partial seizures with secondary generalization – This ailment starts off as a partial seizure before spreading to the other half of the brain, thus becoming a “generalized” seizure. The subsequent symptoms are described in the following section; suffice to say, they do not make for easy reading.

Generalized Seizures


Generalized Tonic-Clonic Seizures – Generalized tonic-clonic seizures are arguably the most intense type of seizure, causing the patient to lose balance and fall to the ground. Immediately afterward, all of the patient’s muscles tighten, preventing them from moving and causing their neck and back to arch. The body’s vocal cords may also constrict, forcing the patient to cry out as air rapidly escapes from the lungs. Most alarmingly, the person might be unable to breath for a short period (15 to 30 seconds), causing their face skin to turn blue.

After this initial stage, the patient’s muscles begin to move uncontrollably in repeating patterns. Doctors refer to these involuntary movements as convulsions. During a convulsive episode, patients occasionally bite their tongue and lose control over their bodily functions. In total, generalized tonic-clonic seizures last between 1 and 2 minutes.

Generalized tonic-clonic seizures tend to leave their mark on the patient long after ending. In the initial 10 to 30 minutes following this type of seizure, a patient will remain unconscious. Even after waking up, the patient will still feel woozy, unfocused and confused. Additionally, generalized tonic-clonic seizures can cause headaches, muscle aches, fatigue and weakness for up to 24 hours after they occur.


Absence Seizures – In stark contrast to generalized tonic-clonic seizures, absence seizures only last up to 15 seconds and cause few symptoms. The name of this seizure stems from the fact that that patient appears mentally “absent” while suffering one. Essentially, the patient loses awareness of their surroundings, and is temporarily unable to communicate with others. After the seizure stops, the patient will be unable to account for the previous 5 to 15 seconds.


Myoclonic Seizures – Myoclonic seizures do not cause a loss of consciousness, but they do force the body’s limbs to move uncontrollably.


Atonic Seizures – This relatively rare seizure causes the body’s muscles to become exceptionally weak, resulting in sudden falls. Patients can easily hurt themselves after sustaining such a fall.


Tonic Seizures – Tonic seizures are similar to atonic seizures, in that they lead to falls and are fairly uncommon. Unlike atonic seizures, tonic seizures cause all of the body’s muscles to temporarily tighten, rendering the patient immobile and very susceptible to falling.

A Very Treatable Disease

Many potent illnesses are made all the more worse by a lack of effective medical treatments. Surprisingly, epilepsy often bucks this trend, as most people with epilepsy are eventually cured of the condition. Even if the disease doesn’t entirely disappear, anti-epilepsy medications are usually able to significantly reduce the frequency and severity of the patient’s symptoms. Children with epilepsy often outgrow the condition; over 50% of those with childhood epilepsy eventually stop taking their medications without consequence.

The medication a patient receives depends on the type of seizures he or she is experiencing. The patient’s age, seizure frequency and other factors (such as medications taken for other conditions) also help determine their course of treatment. Side effects of such medications typically include fatigue, weight gain, loss of coordination, speech problems and difficulties with forming memories and thinking clearly. In some rare cases, the patient may become depressed or suicidal; of course, such instances require immediate medical attention.

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