04 Mar What is epilepsy? Causes, treatments and more…
What is epilepsy?
To discover what is epilepsy, we should start stating what is not. Epilepsy is not a mental condition , nor a psychological illness, rather, it is a brain disorder that causes repeated convulsions and affects the central nervous system.
They are unexpected and spontaneous attacks, caused by a group of neurons (brain cells) that produce uncontrollable electrical charges.
Types of seizures
Seizures are classified into two groups:
Primary generalized seizures
These begin in one single point of the brain but they immediately connect with other areas in both sides of brain, which allows them to generalize their action in various parts of the body.
Focal seizures (partial)
These start when a specific region on one side of the brain is activated, without spreading to other areas of the brain. Unlike during generalized seizures, the patient is conscious.
What causes epilepsy?
Identifying the cause of a seizure can be useful for deciding on a treatment plan. However, in more than 70% of epilepsy sufferers, the cause is unknown.
The cause of epilepsy depends on the age of the patient. It is also very possible that seizures may happen for a specific stage of the patient’s life and then stop. These are some of the possible causes of epilepsy:
- Diseases in other organs, such as the liver and kidneys, diabetes and alcoholism
- Problems before birth that may affect brain development
- Complications during birth, such as brain damage
- Head injuries, especially from car accidents
- Brain tumor
- Infections in the brain, such as meningitis or encephalitis
- Diseases that damage or destroy the brain tissue
- Brain hemorrhage (formation of a blood clot inside the brain)
- Lead poisoning or exposure to other toxic elements such as mercury, carbon monoxide, etc.
How is it diagnosed?
Diagnosing epilepsy requires the following:
- Medical questionnaire
- Thorough physical exam
- Blood test
- Electroencephalogram, EEG (shows abnormal brain activity in specific part)
- Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) or computarized axial tomography (CAT)
Treatment for epilepsy
Recent advances in treatments have managed to isolate certain causes and control the intensity or the number of seizure repetitions. It is essential that a neurologist treats the disease and advises the best procedure to follow according to each individual case.
The majority of patients with epilepsy can stop having convulsions or significantly decrease their frequency and intensity by taking anticonvulsant or antiepileptic medication.
The doctor will take into account the disease, the frequency of the seizures, the patient’s age, along with other factors upon choosing which drug to prescribe.
To complement traditional medication, especially when it doesn’t manage to suitably control the seizures, surgery can sometimes be an option.
During the surgery, the part of the brain that causes seizures is removed. This is only an option if:
- Seizures start in a small and well defined part of the brain
- The part of the brain that will be operated on does not interfere with vital functions, such as speech, language, motor function, vision or hearing.
This is a strict diet that contains high amounts of fat and low amounts of carbohydrates (flours). As such, the body uses fat instead of carbohydrates to produce energy.
You should consult a doctor before adopting this diet to avoid malnutrition.
Vagus nerve stimulation
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that is responsible for transmitting information related to sensory and muscular activity, as well as anatomic functions.
A device is placed under the skin of the chest, in a similar way to pacemakers.
Wires connect the stimulator to the vagus nerve in the neck. With the application of this stimulator, some patients can lower the amount of medication they take.
Alternative treatments for epilepsy
There are complementary therapies that can be used to help treat epilepsy. You should always consult your doctor before starting any of these alternative treatments.
This is a relaxation technique similar to self-hypnosis. They are short, approximately 20 minute sessions, in which you combine visual imagination, suitable breathing techniques and relaxing mantras.
The gentle manipulation of muscles and connective tissue can relieve muscular tension and reduce stress.
This method aims to increase the patient’s awareness, reduce stress and help them be more present, using breathing techniques to clear the mind of isolated thoughts.
Exposure to music with diverse sequences with high and low tones can affect brain waves and physical reactions in the body and the brain.
Adopting certain postures and conscious breathing exercises promotes relaxation and reduces stress.
Using cannabis to treat epilepsy*
Cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive component of cannabis, reduces seizures in large percentage of epilepsy patients. Furthermore, it helps to improve their emotional wellbeing, their cognitive and motor skills, as well as social skills.
*Always check to see if it is legal in your jurisdiction before obtaining any cannabis-based product.
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