Each year, about 5 million people worldwide are diagnosed with epilepsy, a brain condition that causes repeated seizures. It is estimated that about 1 in 100 people in the United States have active epilepsy. More than 75% of those are adults. This article discusses epilepsy basics, how common this condition is, and corrects some misconceptions about epilepsy.
Medical professionals diagnose a person with epilepsy if they have two unprovoked seizures or one unprovoked seizure (sudden, uncontrolled electrical activity between brain cells) with a high risk of more. Before a diagnosis of epilepsy can be made, your provider will rule out other things that can cause seizures or convulsions, like fevers, alcohol withdrawal, abnormal blood sugar levels, or a brain injury.
About 25% of epilepsy cases could be prevented, and current medications and treatments could help nearly 70% of people live without experiencing seizures.
Symptoms of Epilepsy
Epilepsy typically causes seizures, but some people have other symptoms too. Symptoms of seizures vary from person to person but may include confusion, loss of consciousness, and staring into space.
Causes and Risk Factors
Sometimes healthcare providers can find a structural, genetic, infectious, or other cause for a person’s epilepsy. Other times, it seems to develop for no apparent reason at all.
Between 50% and 66% of people who experience epilepsy have no apparent medical cause for the condition.15 Other times, you may have experienced an event or condition that affects your brain and the way it works.
Some causes of epilepsy may include:
- Stroke (cerebrovascular accident, or CVA)
- Brain tumor
- Head injury
- Infection in the brain or spinal cord
- Abnormal brain structure formation1
- Issues at or around the time of birth (low birth weight, lack of oxygen)
Not all people who experience these conditions develop epilepsy, so there is continued research to help providers better understand epilepsy triggers.
Types of Epilepsy
Categorizing epilepsy can be complicated even for specialized healthcare providers because of the many symptoms and ways this condition may appear. The three primary classifications of seizures are:
- Focal onset (affects one side of the brain)
- Generalized onset (affects both sides of the brain)
- Unknown onset (provider is unable to determine)
Once epilepsy is categorized into one of these main brain areas, additional details and descriptions can be added by providers to further document the type of seizure.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) may help your provider understand what part of your brain is activated during seizures. In many cases, seizures last a few seconds to a few minutes and then stop on their own.
When is a Seizure an Emergency?
Call 911 for emergency assistance if you witness a seizure that lasts more than five minutes or if the person having the seizure is injured (falls, strikes their head, is bleeding, etc.).
Prevalence: How Common Is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy affects people of all ages, genders, races, and social classes. Anyone can develop epilepsy at any time. However, epilepsy is more common for some groups of people and in some areas of the world.
About 3.4 million people in the United States have active epilepsy. About 1 million of those have uncontrolled epilepsy. Rural areas and areas of the world with fewer economic and medical resources tend to have higher rates of epilepsy.
Having a seizure does not mean you have epilepsy. Some sources estimate that about 10% of people will have at least one seizure in their lifetime. However, only 1.2% of the U.S. population has active epilepsy.
Few children under 10 have epilepsy. Epilepsy prevalence peaks around adolescence and young adulthood (up to age 30). After 30, the rate decreases and generally stays stable.
In general, men are slightly more likely to report epilepsy than women. A study found that out of 1,000 people, 7.31 men and 6.85 women would have epilepsy. Researchers expressed concerns that there might be more negative consequences for women reporting a health condition, so the numbers may not be entirely accurate.
A person’s racial background tends to be self-reported, and there’s a limited ability for researchers to confirm the information. Ethnicity appears to not play a strong role in developing epilepsy, however.
Ethnic differences in research that have recorded include:
- Hispanic people are more likely to have epilepsy than non-Hispanic people.
- Black people are most likely to be diagnosed over a lifetime.
- White people are most likely to have uncontrolled seizures (active epilepsy).
More research is needed to understand why certain people are more likely to be diagnosed with epilepsy than others, as well as how best to manage the condition.
Living With Epilepsy
For many people, epilepsy is a condition they manage while living a full life. However, there are times when you may need additional support from your healthcare team.
Providers believe that some cases of epilepsy are potentially preventable. Preventable causes include:
- Avoiding head injury
- Seeing a provider if you become pregnant and get prenatal care
- Treating a fever as directed by your provider to prevent very high body temperatures
- Reducing your risk for stroke
- Avoiding or eliminating parasites that cause infection, especially in tropical areas
Epilepsy has been linked to other health problems and complications. The causes and effects are not fully clear, but speak with your healthcare provider if you notice issues with:
- Memory or thinking clearly
- Social interactions
- Bone issues, such as osteoporosis (weak and brittle bones)
It is also possible to experience physical injuries due to seizures. Work with your healthcare team to develop a safety plan for an active seizure.
Many people live full lives when their seizures are controlled with medications and treatments. Work with your provider to track your symptoms and to learn if any triggers may increase your risk for seizures. Lack of sleep, alcohol and recreational drugs, flashing lights, and other factors may increase your seizures.
Common Misconceptions About Epilepsy
There are several misconceptions about epilepsy that can be dangerous. Some misconceptions include:
- You will choke on or swallow your tongue during a seizure: It is impossible to do so. Because of this, never place something in the mouth of a person having a seizure. You can cause injury.
- Epilepsy is contagious: Epilepsy is not contagious. It cannot spread from one person to another. However, there can be a genetic component, so that it may be more common in some families.
- There is one kind of seizure, and they all look the same: Multiple seizures can look different from one person to another.
Epilepsy is a common condition affecting the brain. Many people are living with active epilepsy worldwide. Sometimes, it can be prevented by avoiding injury and illness, but some cases will occur regardless. For many people, epilepsy can be managed with help from your healthcare team, and you can go on to live a full life.
A Word From Verywell
Seeing someone have a seizure can be a scary experience. However, understanding what is happening and how to safely help can leave you feeling more prepared to handle a possible episode. Stay calm, do your best to note the time the seizure starts to calculate how long it lasts, and be ready to call 911 for emergency assistance if there is an injury or the seizure lasts five minutes or more.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What is the most effective treatment for epilepsy?
There is no universal treatment for epilepsy. Multiple, sometimes complex, causes and different kinds of seizure activity exist. Your healthcare team will test you to establish a treatment plan recommended for your specific situation.
How many people around the world have epilepsy?
About 50 million people in the world are estimated to have epilepsy.
Why is epilepsy so common?
About half of all cases of epilepsy have no known cause, so it’s not understood why it is so common. About 4.3 million people in the United States (1.2% of the population) have epilepsy.
Source: verywellhealth.com, Mary Nolan-Pleckham, RN