Seizures and Epilepsy

An estimated 65 million people around the world have epilepsy. Epilepsy is a brain disorder that results in seizures or convulsions caused by surges in the electrical signals in the brain. These surges may cause a variety of behaviors, including blank stares, temporary confusion, jerking movements or violent muscle spasms, or a loss of consciousness.

Epilepsy can stem from brain injury, illness, or abnormal brain development, but there's often no detectable cause.

Epilepsy symptoms

Seizures are a symptom of epilepsy, but having a single seizure does not necessarily mean you have epilepsy. A number of factors can affect the brain enough to cause a single seizure, such as high fever, severe head injury or lack of oxygen.

The nature and degree of epilepsy symptoms vary depending upon the type of seizure. Some seizures end with a loss of consciousness, others do not. Generally speaking, there are two major categories of epilepsy symptoms: partial seizures and generalized seizures.

Partial seizures occur in just one part of the brain. During a partial seizure, a person may or may not remain conscious, and may experience unusual feelings or sensations that can take many forms. Some types of partial seizures may cause involuntary movements in only a part of the body. The person may experience sudden and unexplainable feelings of joy, anger, sadness or nausea. He or she also may hear, smell, taste, see or feel things that are not real.

Generalized seizures are a result of abnormal neuronal activity on both sides of the brain. These seizures may cause loss of consciousness, falls or massive muscle spasms.

Not all seizures can be easily defined as either partial or generalized. Some people have seizures that begin as focal seizures but then spread to the entire brain. Other people may have both types of seizures but with no clear pattern.

Therapies for Epilepsy Patients

Available therapies commonly offered to patients include medications, vagus nerve stimulation, surgery and diet.

  • Medications: The most common epilepsy treatment is antiepileptic drugs. Antiepileptic drugs successfully prevent seizures in the majority of people who take them regularly and as prescribed.
  • Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS): VNS is currently approved for use in adults and children over the age of 12 who have partial seizures that resist control by other methods. The stimulator delivers energy by a flat, round battery, about the size of a silver dollar, which is surgically implanted in a patient’s chest. Thin wires (electrodes) are threaded under the skin and wound around the vagus nerve in the neck. The battery is programmed to send a few seconds of electrical energy to the vagus nerve every few minutes. If a patient feels a seizure coming on, he or she can activate the electrical discharge by passing a small magnet over the battery. In some people, this has the effect of stopping the seizure.
  • Surgery: Unfortunately, some people continue to have seizures regularly despite taking medication. For them, surgery may be helpful. The type of surgery you will need depends upon several factors, including the type of seizures you have and where in the brain these seizures begin. These questions are answered during evaluation with your doctor
  • Diet: Studies have shown that, in some cases, children may experience fewer seizures if they maintain a strict diet rich in fats and low in carbohydrates. Called the ketogenic diet, this way of eating causes the body to break down fats instead of carbohydrates to survive (ketosis). When carefully monitored by a medical team, the diet helps two out of three children and may prevent seizures completely in one out of three, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. It is a strict diet, and takes a strong commitment from the whole family.
  • Other therapies: Some people say they feel better, or have fewer seizures, when they use remedies, such as folk medicines, herbs and megavitamin therapy. If your doctor has no objection, and regular medication is continued, these therapies could be beneficial. Stopping standard medication or a prescribed diet in favor of an unproved remedy, however, is risky and is not advisable.

Leading Epilepsy Care at Sentara Neurosciences Institute

At the Sentara Epilepsy Center, patients receive comprehensive care from a team of doctors and a dedicated epilepsy specialist (an epileptologist). The Sentara Epilepsy Center is one of the nation’s leading providers of advanced epilepsy diagnosis and treatment, offering cutting-edge monitoring technology and surgical capabilities. Our neurologists work with neurosurgeons, neuroradiologists, neurophysiologists, research nurses, diagnostic technologists, and social workers to provide a thorough evaluation and determine the most effective epilepsy treatment plan for you.

Expert Epilepsy Diagnosis at Sentara Neurosciences Institute

To make an epilepsy diagnosis, our specialists will conduct a physical exam and examine your medical history. You should provide as many specifics about the nature of your seizures as possible. (It helps to bring a family member who has witnessed your seizures to your first meeting with a neurologist at the institute.)

As part of your evaluation, you may receive an EEG (electroencephalogram), which detects the brain's electrical impulses. The patterns this test detects will help your doctor determine the nature of the problem and how best to treat it. To conduct the EEG, electrodes are applied to the scalp to measure brain wave activity.

Other tests for epilepsy diagnosis may include imaging methods like MRIs, a positron emission tomography (PET) test to identify the areas of the brain which are producing seizures and a video EEG, allowing doctors to see what actually happens before, during and after a seizure. Advances in imaging are providing more and better information about the structure of the brain, making it easier for doctors to locate lesions and other abnormalities that can lead to seizures. 


Sentara Neurosciences Institute: A National Leader Epilepsy Treatment

Under the direction of epilepsy specialists, Sentara Epilepsy Center provides outpatient-based care for complex patients requiring advanced epilepsy treatment. Our epileptologist also oversees research and clinical trials on every level of epilepsy treatment.

Our epilepsy program provides access to the latest developments in treatments to control seizures. Available therapies offered include common strategies such as anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) and epilepsy surgery. We are also leaders in providing more specialized treatments, including alternative diet therapy, device implantation, immunological therapy and hormone therapy.

Sentara in the Community