What Is Epilepsy?
At the age of three, Adam Todd seemed to be a happy, healthy child. Then he had his first seizure—a generalized tonic clonic seizure (formerly known as a grand mal seizure). A week later—after four more seizures—Adam was diagnosed with epilepsy. Though still a very happy and good-natured boy, his life has been transformed by epilepsy. Today, at the age of nine, he has been diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, a type of epilepsy characterized by having more than one type of seizure and seizures that are difficult to control.
Grace Harris was just four-months old when she had her first seizure. She too had been hitting expected developmental milestones until she started having infantile spasms, another type of epilepsy (typically affecting children between the ages of three months and one year), in which seizures are characterized by a jerking and then stiffening motion. Now at nearly two and a half, Grace is only having about one seizure a day, but her epilepsy has slowed her development and put her through more than most children will ever endure.
Adam and Grace are among the more than three million people in the United States suffering from epilepsy, and each year, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, another 200,000 people are diagnosed with the disease—45,000 of whom are children under the age of 15.
Epilepsy—sometimes referred to as a "seizure disorder"—is a neurological condition or brain disorder that causes seizures. According to Dr. Charuta N. Joshi, MBBS, FRCPC of the Division of Pediatric Neurology at University of Iowa Children's Hospital, "Seizures are a clinical manifestation of abnormal electrical discharge in the brain." In other words, a seizure is an electrical surge in brain activity that causes a person to feel or act differently for a short time. Some seizures may go unnoticed—often they appear as prolonged staring—while others are completely debilitating, sometimes causing an individual to fall to the ground or convulse.
Epilepsy is a disorder that does not discriminate: It can affect anyone at any age, from infants to the elderly. In fact, these two groups have the highest incidence of new diagnoses each year. And since epilepsy has been around for many years—cases are documented by Hippocrates and in the Bible—there are many myths and misunderstandings about this complex disorder. Epilepsy is not contagious, not usually inherited, nor is it caused by evil spirits as once thought in the early 1900s and earlier.
According to CURE—a nonprofit organization created by parents of children with epilepsy to support further research on epilepsy—when a person has had two or more seizures which have not been provoked by specific events such as trauma, infection, fever, or chemical change, he or she is considered to have epilepsy. That is easier said than diagnosed, especially when you consider that in seven out of 10 cases of epilepsy there is no known cause of the seizures.