Frequently Asked Questions

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that from time to time produces brief disturbances in the normal electrical functions of the brain. Normal brain function is made possible by millions of tiny electrical charges passing between nerve cells in the brain and all parts of the body.

When someone has epilepsy, this normal pattern may be interrupted by intermittent bursts of electrical energy that are more intense that usual. They may affect a person's consciousness, body movements, or sensations for a short time. These physical changes are called seizures. When a person has repeated seizures or a tendency to have seizures that can be seen on a brain wave test call an electroencephalogram (EEG), we often say that the person has epilepsy. Epilepsy is sometimes called a seizure disorder. The usual bursts of energy may occur in just one area of the brain (partial seizures) or may affect nerve cells throughout the brain (generalized seizures). Normal brain function cannot return until the electrical bursts stop.

People can be born with conditions of the brain that produce these episodes or they can develop them later in life because of injury, infections, structural abnormalities in the brain, exposure to toxic agents, or for reasons that are unknown.

Illnesses or severe injuries can affect the brain enough to produce a single seizure. When seizures continue to occur for unknown reasons or because of an underlying problem that cannot be corrected, the condition is known as epilepsy. Epilepsy affects people of all ages, nationalities, and races — even animals can have epilepsy. 

What is the difference between seizures and epilepsy?

Seizures are a symptom of epilepsy. Epilepsy is the underlying tendency of the brain to produce a sudden burst of electrical energy that disrupts other than brain functions. Having a single seizure does not necessarily mean a person has epilepsy. A number of factors, including high fever, severe head injury, and lack of oxygen can affect the brain enough to cause a single seizure. Epilepsy, on the other hand, is an underlying condition that affects the delicate systems that govern how electrical energy behaves in the brain, making the brain susceptible to recurring seizures. 

Which doctors treat epilepsy?

Neurologists, pediatric neurologists, pediatricians, neurosurgeons, internists, and family physicians all provide treatment for epilepsy. While children have seizures that are difficult to control, specialized care often is needed. Children's Hospital's Brain Care Institute currently has six pediatric neurologists who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of seizures and epilepsy in children. These physicians also are called epileptologists.Clinic appointments to see one of our epilepsy doctors are available at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, Children's East in Monroeville, Children's South in Bethel Park, and at all three of our specialty care centers in Hermitage, Pa; Johnstown, Pa; and Wheeling, W.Va. 

What should I consider if my child has had a single seizure?

A child's first seizure should be followed by a careful medical evaluation to help the doctor decide whether to recommend treatment with seizure-preventing drugs or to wait and see if it occurs again. 

The most important factor is deciding whether to begin drug treatment for a single seizure is the probability of further seizures. Physicians use both diagnostic tests and careful evaluations of the seizure itself to determine how likely it is that another seizure will occur. Age, family history, ans possible causes of the seizure are among the factors that are considered.

What causes epilepsy?

In about seven out of 10 people with epilepsy, no cause can be found. Among the rest, causes include brain tumors, genetic conditions (such as tuberous sclerosis), lead poisoning, problems in the development of the brain before birth, and infections such as meningitis or encephalitis. 

Epilepsy is often thought of as a condition of childhood, but it can develop at any point in a person's lifetime. About 30 percent of the 125,000 new cases every year begin in childhood, particularly in early childhood and during adolescence. 

What should I do if I suspect my child has a seizure disorder?

If you think your child is having a seizure, it is important to discuss what is happening with a physician. Keep a record of how often the unusual episode occurs, the time of day it happens, and what form it takes. This information will help the doctor determine if what you are describing is a type of epilepsy. 

How is epilepsy diagnosed?

A physician's main tool in diagnosing epilepsy is a detailed medical history, including as much information as possible about what the seizure looked like and what happened just before it began and after it was over. 

A second major tool is an electroencephalogram (EEG).This laboratory test is done with a machine that records brain waves picked up by tiny wires taped to the scalp. electrical signals from the brain cells are recorded as wavy lines by the machine. Brain waves during or between seizures may show special patterns that help the doctor decide whether or not a child has epilepsy. Imaging (picture-taking) methods such as computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used to search for growths, scars, or other physical conditions in the brain that may be causing the seizures. Children's Hospital's Brain Care Institute also uses positron emission tomography (PET) imaging to identify areas of the brain that are producing seizures, especially in those patients who are being considered for epilepsy surgery. 

How can people avoid having seizures?

Parents of children with epilepsy can help control their child's seizures by making sure he or she takes prescribed medication regularly, maintains regular sleep cycles, and avoids unusual stress. Working closely with your child's physician and returning for regular medical evaluations and follow-up visits also are important, but seizures may occur even when these steps are followed. If your child is diagnosed with epilepsy, your child's doctor will help you find the medication and daily regimen that works best to control the seizures.