Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain and causes repeated seizures, which were sometimes previously referred to as "fits".
Epilepsy is estimated to affect more than 500,000 people in the UK. This means that almost one in every 100 people has the condition.
The cells in the brain, known as neurons, conduct electrical signals and communicate with each other in the brain using chemical messengers. During a seizure, there are abnormal bursts of neurons firing off electrical impulses, which can cause the brain and body to behave strangely.
The severity of seizures can differ from person to person. Some people simply experience an odd feeling with no loss of awareness, or may have a "trance-like" state for a few seconds or minutes, while others lose consciousness and have convulsions (uncontrollable shaking of the body).
Some people may only have a single seizure at some point during their life. If they do not have a high risk of having further seizures, they would not be regarded as having epilepsy.
Read more about the symptoms of epilepsy.
What causes epilepsy?
Epilepsy can start at any age, but it most often begins during childhood.
It's often not possible to identify a specific reason why someone develops the condition, although some cases – particularly those that occur later in life – are associated with damage to the brain.
For example, epilepsy can be caused by strokes, brain tumours and severe head injuries.
Some cases of epilepsy may be caused by changes in the brain that occur as a result of the genes you inherit from your parents.
Read more about the causes of epilepsy.
How epilepsy is diagnosed
Epilepsy is most often diagnosed after you have had more than one seizure. This is because many people have a one-off epileptic seizure during their lifetime.
The most important information needed to make a diagnosis is a description of your seizures from yourself and someone who witnessed the event, but tests may also be carried out to help determine which areas of your brain are affected and look for a potential cause.
Read more about diagnosing epilepsy.
How epilepsy is treated
For most people with epilepsy, treatment with medications called anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) is recommended. These medications cannot cure epilepsy, but they are often very effective in controlling seizures.
It can take some time to find the right type and correct dose of AED before your seizures can be controlled.
In a few cases, surgery may be used to remove a specific area of the brain that is affected or to install an electrical device that can help control seizures.
Read more about treating epilepsy.
Living with epilepsy
While epilepsy is different for everyone, there are some general rules that can make living with the condition easier.
It's important to stay healthy through regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and avoiding excessive drinking.
You may have to think about your epilepsy before you undertake things such as driving, using contraception and planning a pregnancy.
Advice is available from your GP or support groups to help you adjust to life with epilepsy.
Read more about living with epilepsy.
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Page last reviewed: 25/11/2014
Next review due: 25/11/2016