What is Epilepsy?

  • A convulsion (or a seizure, or ‘fit’) is an abnormal event that results from a sudden change in the electrical function of cells in the brain.  
  • ‘Epilepsy’ describes the tendency to have such fits, even if there is a long gap between them.  
  • Epilepsy is a common disorder affecting up to 1-2% of the population.  
  • Epilepsy is a physical condition caused by sudden, brief changes in how the brain works.  
  • Epilepsy occurs when nerve cells in the brain send electrical messages at a rate of up to four times higher than normal which causes a sort of electrical storm in the brain, known as a seizure or convulsion (fit).  
  • A pattern of repeated seizure is referred to as epilepsy.  
  • There are several different types of epilepsy. Epilepsy is divided into various types according to the type of fit that is experienced.  
  • Generalised fits affecting the whole body are called ‘grand mal’ or ‘generalised’. Another term that is used is ‘tonic-clonic’ seizures because there is jerking of the limbs (the clonic part of the term) alternating with spasm or rigidity of the limbs (tonic).  
  • Sometimes the fits only affect one part of the body, like an arm or a leg, and these are called ‘focal’ or ‘partial’ seizures.  
  • Terms also used in the description of epilepsy refer to whether consciousness is lost or impaired, or not. When it is, they are sometimes called ‘complex’; and ‘simple’ if consciousness is maintained.  
  • Usually in grand mal fits, the person loses consciousness.  
  • Petit mal attacks are periods of brief absence, seen in children, without the convulsion.


How do you get Epilepsy?

  • In more than half of sufferers, no cause can be found for their epilepsy.  
  • Known causes include head injuries, some infectious illnesses, problems in brain development before birth, and (very rarely) brain tumours.  
  • Some patients appear to inherit the tendency.  
  • Convulsions can sometimes occur in young children (under 5 years) with high body temperatures (febrile convulsions). In the majority they don’t have recurrent seizures and they are not regarded as ‘epilepsy’ proper.

How serious is Epilepsy?
Medication controls seizures for most patients, who are otherwise healthy and able to live full and productive lives.

How long does Epilepsy last?
This will vary greatly depending on the underlying medical condition causing the seizures.

How is Epilepsy treated?

  • Medication controls seizures for most patients, who are otherwise healthy and able to live full and productive lives.  
  • It is very important not to stop taking anticonvulsants without consulting your doctor, even if you are no longer having fits.  
  • This is because you may develop a condition called status epilepticus, in which you have one fit immediately after another

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised:

Diseases and Conditions Center

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