Epilepsy - controllable but not curable
Louise Whalley of Epilepsy Action describes the effects, causes and treatment of Epilepsy.
Epilepsy affects around 456,000, or one in 131, people in the UK.
Around 27,400 new cases are diagnosed each year in the UK. This is equivalent to around 75 new cases each day.
Epilepsy can begin at any time in life, from birth to old age.
It is only recently, however, that doctors are realising just how frequently epilepsy begins in later life. As people are living longer, epilepsy in older people is becoming increasingly common.
Of the 456,000 people affected by epilepsy in the UK, almost a quarter are over 65, and about a third of new cases of epilepsy occur in people over 65.
Epilepsy Action is planning a campaign to highlight the issue and help support older people affected by epilepsy.
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.
This causes 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 types of seizure and each person will experience epilepsy in a way unique to them.
Sometimes the reason epilepsy develops is clear...brain damage caused by a difficult birth; a severe blow to the head; a stroke which starves the brain of oxygen; or an infection of the brain such as meningitis.
Very occasionally the cause is a brain tumour.
However, for most people, there is no known cause.
When epilepsy begins later in life, it is more usual for a cause to be identified. It appears that people who develop epilepsy have a lower 'seizure threshold' or resistance to seizures than people who do not have the condition.
Each person's level of seizure threshold is something they are born with. When a low seizure threshold is combined with one of the possible causes, epilepsy can develop.
In some cases, there does not have to be a cause, the seizures are just 'one of those things'. However, your doctor or epilepsy nurse should be able to give you information about your own particular epilepsy.
At the moment, there is no cure for epilepsy. However, with the right type and dosage of anti-epileptic medication, nearly three quarters of people with the condition could have their seizures completely controlled.
Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) are the most common way to treat epilepsy.
AEDs are taken regularly each day, not just when a seizure happens. Doctors may recommend that you continue to take the medication indefinitely.
AEDs do not cure epilepsy. Their aim is to prevent seizures by acting in some way to control the excitability of the brain.
How they do this is not totally understood. Despite this, their effectiveness in treating epilepsy has been scientifically proven.
Most AEDs are available in different formulations, not just tablets or capsules. These include liquids and chewable tablets.
Ask your GP to prescribe these if you have difficulty swallowing tablets. Your pharmacist can provide clear instructions, in large print if necessary.
They can also provide Dosette boxes. These will keep your medication organised and help to ensure it is taken at the right time.
Living with epilepsy
You may feel that life has completely changed once diagnosed with epilepsy and with it the possible loss of self-confidence and anxiety about having further seizures.
Of course it is important to be sensible and not take unnecessary risks, but it is equally important to live your life as fully as you did before the epilepsy, only avoiding activities that would be dangerous if a seizure occurred.
Epilepsy Action is a working name of British Epilepsy Association, which was established in 1950. The organisation celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
Epilepsy Action is the largest member-led epilepsy organisation in the UK, and acts as the voice of people with epilepsy in the UK.
It helps over 686,500 people every year through a range of services. These include an advice and information service, freephone helpline, epilepsy specialist nurses, branch network and accredited volunteer scheme.
Find out more by visiting Epilepsy Action's website.