Epilepsy Symptoms and Causes
Some, but not all, people with epilepsy notice sensations and behavior changes hours or even days before a seizure. Called prodrome, these feelings are separate from the seizure, but are often considered a warning that a seizure may soon occur. An aura is warning symptom which can be a feeling, sensation, thought or behavior that occurs just prior to a seizure – and is sometimes considered part of the seizure.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, warning signs of seizures include:
- Odd feelings, often indescribable
- Unusual smells, tastes or feelings
- Unusual experiences – “out-of-body” sensations; feeling detached; body looks or feels different; situations or people look unexpectedly familiar or strange
- Feeling spacey, fuzzy or confused
- Periods of forgetfulness or memory lapses
- Daydreaming episodes
- Jerking movements of an arm, leg or body
- Tingling, numbness or feelings of electricity in the body
- Unexplained confusion, sleepiness, weakness
- Losing control of urine or stool unexpectedly
Generally, seizures are unpredictable and brief. While symptoms vary widely, they tend to be stereotypic or remain similar from episode to episode. This is why people with epilepsy are advised to keep track of feelings and behaviors that occur before or during a seizure.
Triggers can make it more likely to have a seizure, but they do not actually cause seizures. The most common triggers are stress and not taking epilepsy medications. A trigger may not result in having a seizure every time, but knowing your individual triggers can help a person with epilepsy know when a seizure may be coming. Typical triggers, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, include:
- Specific time of day or night
- Sleep deprivation – overtired, not sleeping well, not getting enough sleep
- At times of fevers or other illnesses
- Flashing bright lights or patterns
- Alcohol or drug use
- Associated with menstrual cycle (women) or other hormonal changes
- Not eating well, low blood sugar
- Specific foods, excess caffeine or other products that may aggravate seizures
- Use of certain medications
Males and females of all races, ethnic backgrounds and ages are affected by epilepsy. In most cases, the cause of epilepsy is unknown. Some known conditions that affect the brain can cause epilepsy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these include:
- Brain tumor
- Brain infection, such as neurocysticercosis (a parasitic infection)
- Traumatic brain injury or head injury
- Loss of oxygen to the brain (during childbirth, for example)
- Genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome
- Other neurologic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease
While genetic factors play a role in many cases of epilepsy, most children of a parent with epilepsy will not develop seizures or epilepsy. Researchers are still working to understand the genetic component of this condition.
The causes of epilepsy are wide-ranging, but there are some things you can do to prevent or reduce your risk of developing epilepsy, according to the CDC:
- Reduce your risk of traumatic brain injury.
- Use seat belts, child passenger seats, bicycle and motorcycle helmets
- Prevent falls when possible
- Treat traumatic brain injury
- Reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease by eating a healthy diet, exercising and quitting smoking.
- Keep vaccinations up to date. This lowers your chances of infections which can sometimes lead to epilepsy.
- Practice good hand washing and food safety habits to avoid an infection called cysticercosis, which is the most common cause of acquired epilepsy worldwide.
- This parasitic tissue infection is caused by the tapeworm Taenia solium.
- Highest rates of this infection are found in Latin America, Asia and Africa and places with poor sanitation.
- Seek prenatal care and stay healthy during pregnancy.
Research is ongoing to find a cure for epilepsy, but to date there is no universal cure for this condition. In some cases, children can outgrow epilepsy as their brains mature. Surgery can sometimes “cure” epilepsy by removing the part of the brain thought to cause the seizures. Medications do not cure epilepsy but can often control seizures. Other treatments such as vagal nerve stimulation – which sends electrical impulses to the brain – can help patients prevent seizures.