What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a disorder that affects the body’s nervous system. It is caused by recurrent neurological deficits resulting from excessive electrical discharges from the brain. The deficits may result in muscle twitching, sensory deficits or autonomic dysfunction. There may or may not be loss of or altered consciousness.
How common is epilepsy?
The condition may be found in a small proportion of a given population with varying frequency ranging from 1.5 per 1000 in the developed world to 50 per 1000 in developing countries. In Kenya, the prevalence varies between 3 per 1000 to 18 per 1000. Hence there are between 141,000 to 846,000 people in Kenya living with epilepsy.
How serious a condition is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy varies widely in its severity and effect on the sufferer, and the community. The majority get mild forms which to the casual observer many appear just as brief periods of daydreaming or inattention.
They may also occur infrequently, like once or twice a year for a few seconds only. On the other hand, some have episodes characterized by loss of consciousness, fall and violent twitching of the limbs and trunk, which may last up to some minutes or even hours to days. If such episodes occur when the person is in unsafe situations such as open fire or large bodies of water, severe injury or even death may result. Untreated, frequent epileptic attacks can cause brain damage.
What causes Epilepsy?
In the majority of cases (70%), no cause can be identified even after extensive investigations. These are referred to as primary or idiopathic Epilepsy. However, certain causes can be identified in the remaining 30% of cases. These include head trauma such as following road traffic accidents, penetrating head injury from an assault, infections of the brain like meningitis or cerebral malaria, brain tumours changes in blood vessels in the brain and so on. In an even smaller proportion, genetic and inheritance may play a role in causation.
How can one diagnose Epilepsy?
Whereas the ordinary person may suspect that someone maybe having epilepsy, this should ALWAYS be confirmed by a health worker. There are many cases that may look like epilepsy which turn out to be other conditions. Similarly, there are clinical and behavioral changes which do not fit the bill to a non-clinician which upon evaluation may turn out to be epilepsy.
Is It treatable?
For the majority (>70%) a simple medical regime will completely stop the seizures and the subject would be able to stop medication and remain seizure-free. In a few cases, the fits may persist and need more aggressive treatment which may include brain surgery.
In a tiny proportion it proves difficult to fully stop the seizures and the patient may have to do with reduction of seizure frequency or severity as the only viable goal of therapy.
Epilepsy is a fairly common condition that is easily treatable except in a minority of cases. Proper evaluation and management should be sought from medical practitioners as early as possible to stop the seizures so as to avoid complications that can be severe.
Quick Facts and Myths about Epilepsy
This blog post was written by Dr. Thomas Kwasa who is a senior lecturer in internal medicine and neurology at the University of Nairobi. He is a specialist physician and neurologist and has worked with various international organisations such as the United Nations and African Union across the globe.