What is Epilepsy?


Epilepsy is a common neurological condition which manifests as recurring seizures.  A seizure is a temporary burst of uncontrolled electro – chemical activity (mixed up messages) affecting the whole or part of the brain. People suffering mild forms of epilepsy may not be greatly inconvenienced while those with more severe forms may have their lives dramatically altered requiring a great deal of ongoing assistance. Epilepsy can be life threatening.

Simple partial seizures

The person is fully conscious and will experience an involuntary tingling or sensation of stimulation of a sense of emotion. An altered psychological or cognitive or the change in an automatic function may also occur.

Complex partial seizures

The person is not unconscious but consciousness is impaired /altered. They may appear to be sleeping walking, intoxicated or drugged. Typical actions are to stand and stare, wander about, pick up clothing or objects or smack their lips. They are unaware of their actions and may appear confused afterwards.


The person has a brief loss of consciousness lasting 4 – 10 seconds is experienced. They do not fall but fluttering of the eyelids, brief jerking of the arms or head or appear to be day dreaming may occur. Recovery is instantaneous.

Tonic clonic

The person becomes unconscious. If standing they will fall, followed by stiffening and rhythmic muscles contractions (jerking & shaking). This usually lasts 1 – 5 minutes then consciousness is regained slowly and they are usually confused.

Developing Epilepsy

Anyone can develop Epilepsy at any stage of their life. While often the cause for epilepsy is unknown, its onset may occur due to:

  • Head Injuries
  • Genetic conditions
  • Toxins
  • Birth Trauma
  • Drug & Alcohol abuse
  • Brain Infections
  • Strokes
  • Brain Tumors

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Cause of Epilepsy

There are many causes of epilepsy, which may vary with the age at which the seizures begin. As a generalisation, it can be said that an epileptic seizure occurs when, due to a sudden unusual release of energy (electrical activity) in the brain, its normal working is disturbed. The brain then fairly rapidly corrects itself and everything soon returns to normal.

From an explanatory point of view, although it may not be strictly medically acceptable, it is useful to divide epilepsy into two types:

  1. Primary Epilepsy – Idiopathic Epilepsy
  2. Secondary Epilepsy

The seizures in Primary Epilepsy may be identical to those in Secondary Epilepsy, but on examination of the brain with today’s techniques, unlike Secondary Epilepsy, it is not possible to find an abnormality of brain tissue.

For many years this type of epilepsy has been called Idiopathic Epilepsy. It is probable that in Idiopathic Epilepsy there are abnormalities of the chemicals in the cells of the area of the brain tissue which is electrically abnormal. These chemical abnormalities are such that from time to time epileptic discharges may be produced. The exact nature of this chemical abnormality has yet to be understood. Understanding this chemical abnormality is very important for two reasons:

  1. It will provide a much better understanding of the nature of epilepsy.
  2. It may allow the production of drugs (anticonvulsants, anti-epileptic drugs) specifically aimed at correcting the chemical abnormality.

Understanding Epilepsy

Secondary Epilepsy

Secondary Epilepsy is an easier concept to grasp. It means that the symptoms, namely the fits, are secondary, or subsequent to, some obvious abnormality of the brain. In other words, if you could look at the brain itself and examine it, either during life using x-ray techniques like CT or MRI scanning, or autopsy, it would be possible to find an actual abnormality in the brain. The person may have been born with this abnormality of the brain or it may be a scar related to brain damage at birth, a head injury and so on.

It can be fairly easily understood that if there is a structural abnormality of brain tissue, then the brain cells surrounding that abnormality will be somewhat misshapen and possibly functioning abnormally as a result. If you have a scar somewhere on your body, glance at it and notice how it pulls the surrounding skin and tissues in various directions. Some particular causes of epilepsy include anoxia (hypoxia), i.e. lack of oxygen to the brain, brain damage, brain tumours and brain infections.