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What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is the most common neurological disorder

Epilepsy is defined as the tendency to have repeated seizures (not just one) which start in the brain. A brief disturbance in the brain's normal electrical activity causes the nerve cells to fire off random signals. The result is like an electrical storm that causes a temporary overload in the brain.

There are many different kinds of seizure. Some end in seconds while others may last several minutes. People might lose their awareness of what is happening or where they are during a seizure. They may lose consciousness altogether.

Each person's experience of epilepsy is unique. Epilepsy is the most common, serious neurological disorder in the world. In Scotland 55,000 people, that's 1 in 97, have the condition. It is not contagious, nor is it a disease. Between seizures the brain works normally.

Public ignorance and misconceptions about epilepsy in the past have led to fear and prejudice. Today, epilepsy is better understood. Being informed about the condition, knowing the medical terms and how to handle any problems helps reduce the impact epilepsy has on a person's life.

Please remember - only seizures are epileptic, not people.

There are many different types of seizure which are divided into two main groups: generalised and focal (also known as partial).

For more information, call our freephone confidential helpline on 0808 800 2200,
or download our Seizures Explained guide.

Why does epilepsy happen?

Epilepsy can occur if the brain tissue is not properly formed or has been damaged or scarred by, for example, an infection or head injury.  Where there is an identifiable cause, this is referred to as symptomatic epilepsy.

In around 7 out of 10 cases epilepsy has no identifiable cause. This is called idiopathic epilepsy.

It is thought that in many cases there could be a genetic link. The likelihood of this depends on whether or not another family member has epilepsy and, if so, what kind of epilepsy they have.  Genetic, however, does not always mean that it is inherited.  Genetic epilepsy can often be caused by a new genetic change.

If doctors suspect that there is an underlying cause for the seizures, but they cannot identify it at the moment, they may refer to it as cryptogenic.

Although seizures can appear dramatic and frightening to an observer, it is important to realise that the person affected normally feels no pain during a seizure and may have no memory of it afterwards.

Most seizures are not harmful to the brain and the person affected usually recovers quickly.