The seizure disorder epilepsy is actually a group of related conditions resulting from various kinds of brain injury. It is a chronic condition, meaning without treatment it will continue indefinitely. Seizure disorders can be invisible, as in the case of former U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson, who resigned last week in the wake of an incident that occurred while he was behind the wheel.

The diversity of epilepsy means a diversity of causes. Things that can lead to the types of brain injuries that produce seizures include:

  • Congenital brain defects or neonatal brain injury
  • Head trauma
  • Meningitis and other infections
  • Long-term cocaine or amphetamine use
  • Stroke
  • Brain tumors

There are three main types of seizure. They are absence, or petit mal, characterized by a brief period of staring typically no longer than 15 seconds; partial seizures, which only affect some functions and rarely result in loss of consciousness; and the prototypical generalized tonic-clonic, or grand mal, seizure, the one people are perhaps most familiar with. A grand mal seizure involves muscle rigidity and contractions and loss of consciousness or alertness. It is frequently presaged by a seizure aura, sensory changes or hallucinations immediately before the person seizes. Afterward the person often experiences some or all of sleepiness, memory loss, headache, confusion, or brief confusion.

Epileptic seizures can happen at any age, but if epilepsy is present they usually start before age 20. Congenital epilepsy can run in families. There are a variety of tests for epilepsy in someone who is not currently seizing, including an EEG to track the brain’s electrical activity and an MRI scan to look for lesions in the brain.

If you had a seizure—or think you may have had one while alone—contact a medical professional. It is important that you find out whether you are epileptic so that you can be properly treated.

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