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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago


Epilepsy is a disease of the brain that causes recurrent, unprovoked seizures. The seizures are caused by brief disturbances in the electrical functions of the brain. When someone has epilepsy, the brain’s electrical functions are disrupted by abnormal bursts of electrical energy that are more intense than usual. These disruptions in electrical activity may cause abnormal sensations such as numbness, strange taste or smell, a loss of consciousness, or uncontrolled bodily movements. Often, the person is only partially aware of the seizure.

When seizures are triggered by something other than abnormal electrical activity in the brain, they are not caused by epilepsy.

Types of Seizures

  • Non-epileptic seizure is associated with a variety of medical conditions that can cause seizure-like activity such as:
    • Low blood sugar
    • Infections
    • Drug overdose or withdrawal
    • Emotional stress
  • Epileptic seizure is associated with abnormal electrical brain wave activity at the time of the seizure. Common triggers for epileptic seizures include:
    • Fever
    • Sleep deprivation
    • Alcohol
    • Drug abuse

Types of Epilepsy

  • Generalized epilepsy—abnormal electrical discharges appear over the whole brain at the beginning of the seizure
  • Focal epilepsy—abnormal electrical activity starts in a small area in the brain and spreads to the rest of the brain

Incidence of Epilepsy

  • It occurs in both men and women
  • Up to 5 percent of Americans will experience one epileptic seizure in their lifetime
  • Half of them will never have another seizure event
  • A diagnosis of epilepsy is reserved for those who have recurrent epileptic seizures consisting of at least two unprovoked seizures
Last UpdateApril 3, 2012


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