If all you know about seizures and epilepsy comes from movies, chances are you picture a person shaking violently and foaming at the mouth after seeing too many flashing lights. While that’s one of the faces of epilepsy, the seizure disorder doesn’t always look that way.
Though it’s more common in young children and the elderly, anyone at any age can have a seizure or develop a seizure disorder. What’s happening when you have a seizure is that the brain’s signals are misfiring, Glenna Tolbert, M.D., assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and founder and medical director of neurological and orthopedic rehab center Tolbert Rehab, tells SELF. “Our whole body is an electrical system. We’re communicating through the nerves, and they’re electrical, and your brain is the main generator,” she explains. “A seizure happens when there’s a misfiring of your nerve cells and the electric activity in the brain is disrupted. It could be temporary, or it could be a chronic problem.”
A disorder is when this problem becomes chronic. Here, Tolbert explains what’s actually going on when you have a seizure disorder.
1. Epilepsy is a seizure disorder that causes chronic seizures with no known cause.
If a person has two or more seizures, and they cannot be connected to another specific medical cause—like a high fever, low blood sugar, or alcohol or drug withdrawal—they may be diagnosed with epilepsy. For many, the cause is unknown. Epilepsy can be connected to other neurological diseases or genetic disorders, loss of oxygen during birth, brain infection, brain injury, a tumor, or stroke. According to the CDC, about 5.1 million people in the U.S. have a history of epilepsy and 2.9 million people have active epilepsy.
2. If epilepsy is genetic, it will likely show up when you’re a baby. Otherwise, a significant brain illness or injury can cause the disorder.
If your epilepsy is genetic, you’d likely be diagnosed early in life, Tolbert says. “A seizure diagnosis later in life is usually because something caused it,” she says. For a young adult, the most common cause is trauma. “It typically doesn’t turn into a disorder,” she adds. “As soon as you treat the cause, it has a really good prognosis.” But for some, brain infections or injuries can lead to the development of seizure disorder. Epilepsy can also be caused later in life by a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
Read more in SELF Magazine.