All the causes (or etiologies) of epilepsy are not known, but many predisposing factors have been identified, including brain damage resulting from malformations of brain development, head trauma, neurosurgical operations, other penetrating wounds of the brain, brain tumor, high fever, bacterial or viral encephalitis, stroke, intoxication, or acute or inborn disturbances of metabolism. Hereditary or genetic factors also play a role.
Epileptic seizures may occur in any person under certain circumstances, including acute illness and drug overdoses, but these provoked seizures are not part of the definition of epilepsy. Epilepsy connotes that an individual has unprovoked seizures which recur over time. In about 50% of all cases, there is no cause for epilepsy that is currently detectable even with state of the art investigations. In about 50% of cases, evidence of a brain injury, scar or malformation is found, to which the epilepsy is attributed. In many, but not all cases, abnormal electrical activity can be detected in the brain with an electroencephalogram (EEG), either during or in between seizures.
Some people (especially young children) have seizures when exposed to certain patterns of flashing/flickering lights. This is a special type of reflex epilepsy called photosensitive epilepsy and the seizures themselves are often informally called “Pokemon seizures,” after an article was published describing an outbreak of photosensitive seizures due to broadcast of an episode of the popular children’s television show Pokemon. While some of the children involved doubtless had photosensitive epilepsy, some investigators believe that the majority of the 12,000 affected in this outbreak actually were having psychogenic non-epileptic seizures.
The diagnosis of epilepsy requires the presence of recurrent, unprovoked seizures; accordingly, it is usually made based on the medical history. EEG, brain MRI, SPECT, PET, and magnetoencephalography may be useful to discover an etiology for the epilepsy, discover the affected brain region, or classify the epileptic syndrome, but these studies are not useful in making the initial diagnosis.
Long-term video-EEG monitoring for epilepsy is the gold standard for diagnosis, but it is not routinely employed owing to its high cost and inconvenience. It is, however, sometimes used to distinguish psychogenic non-epileptic seizures from epilepsy.
Epilepsy is usually treated with medication prescribed by a physician; primary caregivers, neurologists, and neurosurgeons all frequently care for people with epilepsy. In some cases the implantation of a stimulator of the vagus nerve, or a special diet can be helpful. Neurosurgical operations for epilepsy can be palliative, reducing the frequency or severity of seizures; or, in some patients, an operation can be curative.