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Epilepsy

Learn more about epilepsy

In 2012, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a new report called Epilepsy Across the Spectrum: Promoting Health and Understanding.

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes seizures. Epileptic seizures happen because of abnormal electrical activity in your brain. During a seizure nerve cells in your brain may signal as many as 500 times a second — much faster than normal. Seizures can cause different symptoms, depending on what parts of your brain are affected. During a seizure, you might:

  • Have jerking, twitching, or stiffening muscles
  • Pass out and fall down
  • Have sudden and unexplainable feelings of joy, anger, sadness, or nausea (feeling sick to your stomach)
  • Hear, smell, taste, see, or feel things that are not real
  • Behave oddly, such as blink repeatedly, smack your lips, or walk in circles
  • Stare into space, losing contact with reality for a moment

Epilepsy has many possible causes. Often the cause is unknown. Many people don't realize that epilepsy is as likely to begin in older adults as in young children.

Medicine can control seizures for most people with epilepsy. When medicines do not work well, an implanted device used to stimulate a nerve in the brain or surgery might help.

Most people with epilepsy appear to lead normal lives. Yet the condition can make some aspects of daily living more difficult. For instance, if you have epilepsy, most states will not give you a driver's license unless you can prove that you have gone a certain period of time without a seizure. The risk of seizures can also limit your recreational choices, such as swimming and water sports and contact sports. Talk to your doctor about what activities are risky for you and ways to reduce the risks should you want to participate.

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Content last updated: September 22, 2009.

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