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Epilepsy is one of the most common and misunderstood neurological disorders. To clarify some information about this condition, here are seven epilepsy facts to keep in mind:

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7 Epilepsy Facts to Know

1. It’s Widespread

An estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. have epilepsy, according to the CDC. That’s more than multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson’s disease combined.

Epilepsy is most prevalent in early childhood and old age, but can develop anytime. A person is considered to have epilepsy if they experience two or more unprovoked seizures more than 24 hours apart that can’t be explained by another medical condition.

2. There’s More Than One Cause

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, only 1 in 3 patients actually know the cause of their epilepsy. Some common causes include head injury, stroke, brain tumor, infection (like meningitis or encephalitis), or Alzheimer’s disease.

Getting the facts about epilepsy is important. A doctor can perform tests and brain scans to help determine possible epilepsy causes and work with you to develop a treatment plan to manage your condition.

3. Different Triggers Affect Different People

Common seizure triggers include substances like alcohol and drugs, as well as poor sleep, high levels of stress, hormonal changes, illness, hunger, dehydration, flashing lights, and very low blood sugar, especially for diabetics.

Keeping a journal of your seizures (time of day, how you felt, what you were doing, your sleep habits, what you ate or drank) will help you pinpoint your triggers and manage your epilepsy symptoms.

4. There’s More than One Type of Seizure

There are many different types of seizures, and they don’t always look like they do in the movies — someone falling down and shaking violently. Stiff, jerky movements and loss of consciousness can signal a seizure, though sometimes the person may simply stare into space. Seizures can also include mild muscle spasms, involuntary movements, or disruptions to speech, movement, vision, or other senses.

5. Individuals May Experience Different Warning Symptoms

Many people experience warning signals that a seizure is about to happen. Often referred to as focal aware seizures (FAS), these warning signs may include sensitivity to smells, sounds, or sight, as well as anxiety, nausea, dizziness, and tunnel vision.

6. The Mental Health Connection

Although the reasons aren’t clear, people with epilepsy have higher rates of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression. There are similar changes in brain functioning among these conditions. It’s also possible that the electrical disruptions from epilepsy can affect certain areas of the brain and cause behaviors common to ADHD, depression, and autism.

7. You Can Manage Epilepsy

Help is available for those who suffer from epilepsy. To diagnose epilepsy, your doctor will ask for a detailed medical history, perform blood tests, and may order a brainwave study called an EEG, and imaging studies like a CT or MRI. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to help control the seizures, and they will recommend changes in lifestyle and diet. If these options don’t bring the seizures under control, you may be eligible for epilepsy surgery or a neurostimulation method such as Vagal Nerve Stimulator (VNS), Responsive Neurostimulator (RNS), or Deep Brain Stimulator (DBS) which are all offered at the UPMC Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.

You should also develop a seizure response plan, which is a written document that provides general medical information, emergency contacts, details about your seizures, medicines, and information about what to do if a seizure happens.

For more information on epilepsy treatment at UPMC, please contact the UPMC Department of Neurology at 412-692-4920 or visit the UPMC Comprehensive Epilepsy Center website.