A seizure is a terrifying event when a victim knows that one might be coming, but it is even worse for a first-time epileptic who has no idea what is wrong with their body. Epilepsy, which is a brain disorder causing recurring – and often life-threatening – seizures, is an illness affecting approximately .5% of the American population.
Most people know what epilepsy is, but very few understand what causes seizures, and how many types of seizures there really are. The possible causes for a seizure are equally as diverse, and doctors often have trouble pinning down the precise reason for a seizure in a particular patient’s case.
Seizures, no matter what the cause, are triggered by abnormal electrical excitation in the brain. This causes a disturbance in brain function, and can lead to any one of numerous types of seizures. Seizures range from mild to extreme, and in rare cases, a victim might not even realize that they are having one.
1. Temporary Seizures
There are several cases in which seizures might be a temporary problem, and might not develop into epilepsy, which is a chronic (ongoing) disorder. Temporary causes are usually traumatic instances that severely affect the electrical impulses to the brain. Although they are temporary, they are no less severe than epileptic seizures, and should be treated immediately by a qualified physician.
One of the most common stimuli for temporary seizures is drug use. This is sometimes referred to as a “bad trip” in which an individual takes an illegal narcotic and experiences negative side effects on top of the effects of the drug. Seizures are a common side effect to drugs like Acid, Heroine and Cocaine, and usually stop once the “high” ends. Drug withdrawal can also spawn seizures, though not as commonly as drug use.
Brain injuries are another cause for temporary seizures, though they often become chronic later in life. When the membranes of the brain are damaged, electrical impulses can be stunted, resulting in seizures. If the first seizure occurs within two or three weeks of the injury, they are likely to be temporary. Seizures that begin months or even years after the injury are more likely to become chronic seizures, or epilepsy.
2. Chronic Seizures
The first and least common type of epileptic seizure is called an idiopathic seizure. This means that the epilepsy has no identifiable, physical cause, and no extraneous neurological disorders are present. Idiopathic seizures usually occur in victims between the ages of three and twenty, and can often be the result of a family history of seizures.
When infants or young children begin to experience seizures, this is usually indicative of a genetic or developmental condition present at the time of birth. These types of seizures almost always become chronic, and are therefore considered a type of epilepsy.
The third type of epilepsy, and the most common in my experience, comes as a result of a metabolic imbalance. This is common because it encompasses a large variety of specific triggers, and can occur at any age in the patient’s life. Victims of diabetes and kidney disease are prime candidates for this type of seizure, as are infants born with phenylketonuria (PKU). Electrolyte deficiencies and nutritional imbalances can also spawn chronic seizures. In rare cases, abusers of recreational drugs (such as amphetamines or cocaine) can cause epilepsy, as well as withdrawal from barbituates and benzodiazepines.
In patients over the age of sixty-five, disorders of blood vessels (such as strokes) and degenerative disorders (such as senility and Alzheimer’s) can cause epilepsy.
HIGH RISK FACTORS
Patients with a family history of epileptic seizures are at a high risk factor for epilepsy, as are victims of any type of brain damage or malfunction. If you are already susceptible to seizures or to epilepsy, pregnancy will increase the chances of having a seizure. Other common triggers are insomnia, alcohol, recreational drug use, immunosuppressed individuals and a variety of prescription medications.
The most frightening thing about seizures is that they vary so widely between individual cases. Depending on the cause and the contributing factors, seizures can range from mild to severe, and can be different each time an epileptic experiences one.
At the lowest end of the spectrum, a victim might experience a brief spell of fixated staring, without the ability to focus the eyes. Symptoms move on from there are can include unconsciousness, violent convulsions and catatonia.
Immediately preceding a seizure, the victim may experience tingling sensations throughout the entire body, mood swings, a distortion of vision or smell, or an intense headache. In some cases, no physical symptoms occur prior to the episode.
The symptoms and the physical sensations vary depending on the area of the brain that is effected and the intensity of the electrical disruption.
A generalized seizure is one that affects between 80% and 100% of the brain. There are two types of generalized seizures.
Petit mal seizures – The patient will experience an inability to move (except, in some cases, for the eyes), a brief, sudden loss of conscious awareness, and the inability to absorb sensory input. These most commonly occur during childhood, and may happen several times over a span of months or years.
Grand mal seizures – also called Tonic-clonic seizures, these are much more violent than petit mal seizures. The patient might experience violent muscle contractions throughout the body, a loss of consciousness, a brief inability to inhale, biting of the tongue or cheek, urine incontinence, and mild confusion following the episode. Grand mal seizures usually affect the entire body, and the patient will be weak afterwards.
Diagnosing epilepsy can be a difficult task because, unless the patient is subjected to a long duration of observation, it usually is not possible to run tests during a seizure. Therefore, a broad scope of testing is required as well as descriptions of epileptic episodes by the victim. In some cases, a physical examination of the brain will show no altered activity at all between seizures.
Patients are usually hooked up to an electrocephalograph (EEG) in order to read the electrical activity in the brain. This test might indicate the location of the problem in the brain – a tumor or lesion – but if not, prolonged monitoring to the EEG will be required.
Blood tests, such as liver function, blood chemistry, kidney function, CBC, blood glucose tests might be run to look for abnormalities. A head CT or MRI scan might be necessary, and a doctor might order a lumbar puncture (or spinal tap) to discover the cause.
Treatment for epilepsy depends on the root cause of the seizures, the frequency of the seizures and the severity of each episode. Anti-convulsants are often prescribed for patients with violent convulsions and may have to be adjusted regularly depending on side effects and the frequency of seizures after taking the medication. Some patients will be placed on several medications at once, and will have to be monitored closely for any problems associated with those medications.
Refractory epilepsy, which occurs in very few patients, means that a patient does not respond to medication and may have to undergo brain surgery to remove abnormal cells.
If patients are concerned about seizures, they should wear medical-alert jewelry so that medical treatment can be administered right away in the case of a seizure.