What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is currently defined as a tendency to have recurrent seizures (sometimes called fits). A seizure is caused by a sudden burst of excess electrical activity in the brain, causing a temporary disruption in the normal message passing between brain cells. This disruption results in the brain's messages becoming halted or mixed up.
The brain is responsible for all the functions of your body, so what you experience during a seizure will depend on where in your brain the epileptic activity begins and how widely and rapidly it spreads. For this reason, there are many different types of seizure and each person will experience epilepsy in a way that is unique to them.
Tonic Clonic Seizures
This is the most recognised epileptic seizure. In short, the person goes stiff, falls to the ground, their limbs jerk, after which they become still before regaining consciousness.
The whole seizure usually only lasts a minute or two, but if a seizure lasts more than that, say, five minutes, or if it is the first time that person has had a seizure, medical assistance should be sought at once.
During an absence seizure it can appear to onlookers that the person is daydreaming or switching off, something we all do when we are bored or distracted. However, in an absence seizure the person can not be alerted or woken up; they are momentarily unconscious and therefore totally unaware of what is happening around them.
Absence seizures are rare in adults, most commonly beginning in childhood. Some children may go on to experience tonic-clonic seizures later in life; others 'grow out' of their epilepsy.
Myoclonic Seizures or Jerks
The term myoclonic comes from 'myo', meaning muscle, and 'clonus', meaning jerk. Caused by a sudden contraction of the muscles, it can affect the whole body but it is usually restricted to one or both arms and sometimes the head. As in absence seizures, the person is not conscious, but the seizure is so brief that the person appears to remain fully conscious.
Myoclonic jerks occur most frequently in the morning. Although the seizures are brief, they can be extremely frustrating, resulting as they often do in spilt drinks or 'similar' accidents.
Tonic and Atonic Seizures
Tonic seizures result in all the muscles contracting. The body stiffens and the person will fall over if unsupported.
Atonic seizures (also called 'akinetic' seizures) are, in a way, the opposite of tonic seizures. Instead of the body going stiff, all muscle tone is lost and the person simply drops to the ground, hence their other name 'drop attacks'.
Although the person falls heavily, they are usually able to get up again straight away. When the body goes limp it inevitably falls forward and there is a risk of damage to the brain caused by banging the head on furniture, for example, especially if the seizures occur frequently.