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Epilepsy, also called seizure disorder, chronic brain disorder that briefly interrupts the normal electrical activity of the brain to cause seizures, characterized by a variety of symptoms including uncontrolled movements of the body, disorientation or confusion, sudden fear, or loss of consciousness. Epilepsy may result from a head injury, stroke, brain tumor, lead poisoning, genetic conditions, or severe infections like meningitis or encephalitis. In over 70 percent of cases no cause for epilepsy is identified. Some 40 to 50 million people suffer from epilepsy worldwide and the majority of cases are in developing countries.
Epileptic seizures vary in intensity and symptoms depending on what part of the brain is involved. In partial seizures, the most common form of seizure in adults, only one area of the brain is involved. Partial seizures are classified as simple partial, complex partial (also known as psychomotor), and absence (also known as myoclonic or petit mal) seizures.
People who have simple partial seizures may experience unusual sensations such as uncontrollable jerky motions of a body part, sight or hearing impairment, sudden sweating or flushing, nausea, and feelings of fear.
Complex partial seizures, also called temporal lobe epilepsy, last for only one or two minutes. The individual may appear to be in a trance and moves randomly with no control over body movements. The individual's activity does not cease during the seizure, but behavior is random and totally unrelated to the individual's surroundings. This form of seizure may be preceded by an aura (a warning sensation characterized by feelings of fear, abdominal discomfort, dizziness, or strange odors and sensations).
Absence seizures, rare in adults, are characterized by a sudden, momentary loss or impairment of consciousness. Overt symptoms are often as slight as an upward staring of the eyes, a staggering gait, or a twitching of the facial muscles. No aura occurs and the person often resumes activity without realizing that the seizure has occurred.
In a second type of epilepsy, known as generalized seizure, tonic clonic, grand mal, or convulsion, the whole brain is involved. This type of seizure is often signaled by an involuntary scream, caused by contraction of the muscles that control breathing. As loss of consciousness sets in, the entire body is gripped by a jerking muscular contraction. The face reddens, breathing stops, and the back arches. Subsequently, alternate contractions and relaxations of the muscles throw the body into sometimes violent agitation such that the person may be subject to serious injury. After the convulsion subsides, the person is exhausted and may sleep heavily. Confusion, nausea, and sore muscles are often experienced upon awakening, and the individual may have no memory of the seizure. Attacks occur at varying intervals, in some people as seldom as once a year and in others as frequently as several times a day. About 8 percent of those subject to generalized seizures may have status epilepticus, in which seizures occur successively with no intervening periods of consciousness. These attacks may be fatal unless treated promptly with the drug diazepam.
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