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Epilepsy is the tendency to have repeated seizures or fits that originate in the brain. Many people have a single fit at some point in their lives but that does not mean they have epilepsy.
The brain is a highly complex structure comprised of millions of nerve cells that are responsible for a wide range of functions including consciousness, movement and posture. A sudden, temporary interruption in some or all of the functions of the nerve cells may result in a seizure or fit.
Every person has a seizure threshold or level of resistance to seizures. A person with a low seizure threshold might develop epilepsy spontaneously without other factors being involved. Having a low threshold and a condition such as cerebral palsy may also be the cause of epilepsy.
Some people develop epilepsy following an infection that affects the brain such as meningitis or encephalitis.
Epilepsy is the most common serious neurological condition affecting around 1 in every 200 adults in the UK.
Diagnosis of epilepsy is based on a history of more than one epileptic seizure. Eye witness accounts provide useful information, as the person experiencing the seizure will not usually remember what has happened. Some tests can be carried out to aid diagnosis and these include blood tests, EEGs or scans such as a CT scan or an MRI scan.
Epilepsy can be treated and, with the appropriate drug treatment, seizures can be controlled in up to 80% of people. In some people the tendency to have seizures decreases with time. For others, it may be necessary to take anti-epileptic drugs for a period of years.
Many people are able to keep their seizures to a minimum by avoiding situations which they know can trigger a seizure. These triggers include lack of sleep, too much alcohol, emotional upsets or missing medication.