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A seizure disorder, also known as epilepsy, is a brain disorder that causes seizures of varying degrees and types 1. Sometimes a diagnosis of a seizure disorder can be made after a person is afflicted with just one seizure, but according to the Mayo Clinic, the diagnosis of "seizure disorder" is usually not applied until a person has at least two. The signs and symptoms you experience are usually indicative of seizure disorder, but if you're unsure, simple noninvasive medical testing can give you an affirmative (or negative) diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms of a Seizure Disorder
Epileptic seizures are caused when the electric currents normal to brain function "misfire" or cannot be controlled. Because seizures often result in unconsciousness or lack of awareness, the signs of a seizure disorder--those that other people notice in you--are often the first indicator. Seizures come in various types and can affect only part of the brain (partial seizures) or all of the brain (generalized). Partial seizures include simple partial seizures. While these seizure types don't result in unconsciousness, they may alter your sensory perceptions (e.g., sound, smell, taste) or your emotional state. Sometimes involuntary twitching of the limbs occurs, as well as sensory perceptions of tingling, flashing lights and vertigo. Another partial seizure type is the complex partial seizure, in which a person lacks awareness. Signs of these seizures may include automated motions, such as:
- swallowing or pacing in circles
Absence seizures are very subtle and result in brief periods of unconsciousness, usually only seconds, during which time someone else may notice you staring blankly ahead, blinking or picking at your clothing. Myoclonic seizure symptoms include sudden jerks in the arms and legs that are similar to an electric shock, and atonic seizures (also known as "drop seizures") display in a sudden complete loss of muscle tone that causes you to "drop" to the floor. Tonic-clonic seizures are the types that most people think about when the term "seizure disorder" is mentioned. They involve a host of external signs, including a stiffening of the body followed by unconsciousness and finally shaking and twitching of the limbs. If you suspect that you have a seizure disorder, you'll want to have onlookers describe the signs of your seizure to you so you can report these to a doctor. Many people who experience seizures don't remember them, such as in the case of absence seizures, while others may experience profound confusion after a more severe seizure, such as a tonic-clonic seizure. Most people with a seizure disorder experience the same type of seizure, each time.
There are a number of simple medical tests to determine if you have a seizure disorder; possibly the most invasive procedure will be a blood test. Neurologists, doctors who specialize in treating seizure disorders, have established testing protocols that first involve a physical and neurological in-office examination, during which time information about the signs and symptoms of the seizures will be gathered. The most common and time-tested method of determining the presence of a seizure disorder is called an electroencephalogram (EEG), which records the brain's electrical "output." This is a completely painless, noninvasive test that involves attaching electrodes to a patient's head and studying the pattern of the brain waves. Sometimes an EEG will involve keeping you awake or having you fall asleep; other times, an EEG is administered after having you sleep very little the night before. Often a strobe light will be used during an EEG to see if flashing lights evoke seizure activity. A person with a seizure disorder will usually have abnormal brain waves, even in absence of a seizure. Other noninvasive tests can include a CT Scan or MRI, which produce an image of the brain. These allow a doctor to make sure that there are no physical irregularities that might be causing you to have seizures, such as a tumor or bleeding. (To read more about these various types of tests, see the links provided below.)
After a Seizure Disorder Is Diagnosed
The first method of treating seizures is through use of oral medications. The type of drug prescribed will depend on the type of seizures you are having. Usually, patients with seizure disorders can completely eliminate or reduce seizures. However, getting the right drug and right dosage takes time and patience. Most patients can expect initial side effects of drowsiness, vertigo, fatigue and difficulty with coordination when they first begin drug therapy. However, these resolve as the body adjusts to the medication. In cases when seizures cannot be controlled with a single medication, a combination of drug therapies will be used. While surgery is a treatment option, due to the high risk of this procedure, it is typically reserved for patients whose seizure disorders cannot be controlled through use of drugs, and/or when seizures have decreased their quality of life to the point where the potential reward outweighs the risks. Epilepsy is a very misunderstood disorder 1. Common misconceptions about sufferers from the unaware and uneducated include automatically associating the condition with below-average intellect an inability to "function." However, these are largely myths; people with epilepsy receive college degrees, have successful careers, marry and care for their children. But receiving a diagnosis of a seizure disorder is difficult for some and can lead to depression, social withdrawal and living in perpetual fear of the next episode. Educating family and friends about your seizure disorder is important, so they'll know what to expect and how to render first aid if needed. It's important to stay socially active and to live as independently as you can. To find support online or in your own community, access the link below at Epilepsy.com.