What is epilepsy?


crutchfieldsquareEpilepsy is a brain disorder in which the electrical activity of the brain cells becomes disrupted, causing a seizure. Some doctors have referred to this as “an electrical storm in the brain.” A single seizure alone does not mean a patient has epilepsy. Usually, several unprovoked seizures are required to make the diagnosis of epilepsy.

Epilepsy is also referred to as “seizure disorders,” and the disease can vary in intensity from person to person. Epilepsy is characterized by unpredictable seizures that can cause harm to the sufferer and affect normal activities of living such as relationships, work, and driving a car. About one percent of people worldwide have epilepsy.

Also, the severity of seizures can vary. Most seizures produce the classic jerking of the arms and legs (convulsions), but others may be so mild as only to produce mild confusion, sleepiness, or a brief loss of consciousness.


What causes epilepsy?

The precise cause of epilepsy in the majority of cases is unknown. Some cases are genetic, and other cases are acquired.

  • Genetic. Some types of epilepsy are known to be present in many family members, indicating the genetic basis of epilepsy. Epilepsy is more common in persons with autism.
  • Head trauma or any event that damages the brain
  • Strokes
  • Brain tumors. In the elderly, seizures can be a sign of brain tumors.
  • Infectious diseases of the brain and spine
  • Substance abuse

Are there tests for epilepsy?

Yes, a doctor must determine if the condition is epilepsy or some other medical condition that is similar but different from epilepsy. In addition to a history and physical exam, the doctor may order the following tests:

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG). This test measures the electrical activity of the brain.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This provides an image of the brain to make sure there are no irregularities or tumors.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET). This can help measure the metabolic activity of the brain.
  • Brain blood flow analysis

How is epilepsy treated?

  • Anti-seizure medications are the mainstay treatment for epilepsy, and with them 80 percent of patients can become seizure-free or almost seizure-free.
  • Surgery is effective when it can be determined that a small, specific area is the cause of seizures.
  • Nerve stimulation
  • Diet modification in some children has been helpful, utilizing a high-fat, low carbohydrate diet.

There are many great resources for patients, including the Epilepsy Foundation. Epilepsy cannot always be cured, but effective treatments can be employed so that patients with epilepsy can lead near-normal, fulfilling lives


Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.