Convulsions, wild twitching, screaming and foaming at the mouth: this is how the disease is commonly perceived amongst the general public. This form of epilepsy is, however, only one of many and not its most common one. Correctly ascertaining what form of epilepsy a person is affected by is of tremendous importance in order to ensure said person receives the best care possible.
Epilepsy is the most common central nervous system disease. The word epilepsy is of Greek origin and means “seizure” or "to be seized" (in a literal sense). Epilepsy was first discovered in the 16th century. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about five percent of the general population experience an epileptic seizure under special circumstances once or a few times in their lifetime. Individual episodes of seizures are, however, different from epilepsy itself. In Kenya, 18.6 out of every 100,000 people suffer from epilepsy. The risk of developing epilepsy is higher in the first years of life, then drops sharply but rises again starting from the age of 60 onwards.
Epilepsy vs. epileptic seizures
Epileptic seizures differ from epilepsy in that an epileptic seizure is a one-time event that occurs suddenly and usually stops after seconds or minutes. When such seizures occur at least twice within 24 hours then the person affected by them likely suffers of epilepsy, a disease characterized by excessive and abnormal neuronal activity in the cortex of the brain which translates to recurring episodes of seizures.
When neurons go wild
In non-epileptic persons, the brain's billions of neurons (electrically excitable brain cells) are coordinated by electrical and chemical signals. During an epileptic seizure this balance is temporarily disturbed, and many neurons suddenly discharge simultaneously. These abnormal discharges spread through the brain and affect individual brain areas or the brain as a whole in an unnatural way.
Cause of epilepsy often unclear
The causes of epilepsy and epileptic seizures often remain unclear even today, despite improvements in monitoring technology. Some of the factors which do contribute to the development of epilepsy are well known, however. They can act in an isolated manner or have a simultaneous effect. One’s genetic heritage can play a role (leading to the form of epilepsy known as idiopathic generalized epilepsy), but so can brain damage both present at birth and after an accident (this leads to the form of epilepsy known as symptomatic epilepsy), the latter being by far the most common.
Epilepsy arising from genetic heritage only constitutes about five to ten percent of children and adolescents with epilepsy. The more common causes of epilepsy and epileptic seizures include pathological changes in the brain such as severe head injuries, brain tumours, strokes and haemorrhages or brain damage from complications arising during birth.