Epilepsy - overview
Important Patient Information: Some insurances require a referral from the person's primary care physician to be seen for this condition. Referrals help us provide the most coordinated care with a patient's overall care team. Please check with your insurance provider as to whether or not you will need a referral from your primary care physician to UF Health.
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Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological disorders. Approximately 2.5 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from epilepsy. Epilepsy is defined as a recurrent seizure disorder. Epilepsy can be caused by a variety of things, including stroke, brain tumor, head injury, genetics or family history. Sometimes the cause may be unknown.
A seizure is a period of abnormal activity where a group of brain cells (neurons) fire more frequently than usual and in unison. This can occur in a small region of the brain (partial seizures) or throughout both of the brain's hemispheres (generalized seizures). They are often accompanied by loss of consciousness and abnormal behavior (such as jerking of an arm). They usually start and stop abruptly and may be followed by a period of altered awareness or weakness (the post-ictal period).
A single seizure is not considered epilepsy. A single seizure might be a warning sign of another problem in the body. A single seizure, or an electrical short circuit in the brain, could be caused by low blood sugar, low sodium levels or thyroid abnormalities or a number of other issues.
Epilepsy can start at any age, but it is especially common in children and the elderly.
Causes of Epilepsy
The underlying cause of epilepsy is permanent changes to brain tissue. These changes can cause the brain to be too excitable, which results in the distribution of abnormal signals. Epileptic seizures typically begin between the ages of 5 and 20, but can happen at any age, especially when there is a family history of seizures or epilepsy.
Some common causes include the following:
- Alzheimer's disease
- Traumatic brain injury
- Brain abcess, meningitis, encephalitis or AIDS
- Congenital brain defect
- Brain injury during or near birth
- Metabolism disorders in children (such as phenylketonuria)
- Brain tumor
- Abnormal blood vessels in the brain
- Genetic causes/family history
Symptoms of epilepsy range from staring spells and loss of alertness to violent shaking. People often have a strange sensation or emotional changes before each seizure (referred to as an aura). Symptoms and type of seizure depend on the part of the brain affected and the cause of the disease. Most recurrant seizures are similar to previous seizures. Many people think that all seizures are convulsions. But, many types of seizures exist. Behavior during a seizure depends on where the seizures starts in the brain. Some examples include staring spells, speech arrest, recurrent feelings/sensations without cause. Some seizures can be very subtle, and often people will dismiss the episodes altogether.
For more symptom details for various types of seizures, visit the following health topics:
Some types of epilepsy are well controlled with medication (anti-epileptic drugs, AEDs). There are a large number of medications that can be used to treat epilepsy, and this is best managed by a neurologist that specializes in the treatment of epilepsy. However, about 35 percent of people have trouble controlling their seizures with medications alone. Those people may be candidates for other therapies such as epilepsy surgery, and they should be evaluated by experts at a comprehensive epilepsy center like the one at UF Health Shands Hospital. Uncontrolled epilepsy severely impacts all aspects of a patient’s life, including their education, personal relationships, ability to drive and work, and it even increases their risk of sudden, unexplained death.
Experts at UF Health are dedicated to providing optimal care for people with difficult-to-control epilepsy. Our epilepsy specialists also treat patients with related neurological conditions, including seizures due to brain tumor or head trauma, syncope and sleep disorders.
For More Information
- American Epilepsy Society
- Epilepsy Foundation
- Epilepsy Foundation Florida
- National Association of Epilepsy Centers
- The Neurodiagnostic Society
To schedule an appointment, please call 352.265.8408 today.