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Frequently Asked Questions about Epilepsy

Each year, approximately 200,000 people are diagnosed with epilepsy. When you first receive a diagnosis you may have some questions related to your condition. To help you understand, Carol Ulloa, MD, Medical Director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at The University of Kansas Health System, has answered some of the most frequently asked questions to better help you understand epilepsy.

Q: What is epilepsy?

A: In simple terms, epilepsy is when a person's brain has a tendency to have seizures more than the average person. We typically reserve this term for someone who has suffered two or more unprovoked seizures in their life. A seizure occurs when a group of brain cells becomes hyperactive or hypersynchronized. This leads to a variety of involuntary symptoms that a person may experience.

Q: I have seizures now, but how could I have epilepsy if I was not born with it?

A: Although a large group of people with epilepsy are those below the age of 10, the other largest group are those above the age of 65. Seizures and epilepsy can begin at any age.

Q: What is the cause?

A: There are many causes of epilepsy including genetics or as the result of a brain insult, such as stroke, tumor, infection, head trauma, scar tissue and autoimmune disorder. Sometimes, even with sophisticated testing, we cannot identify the cause.

Q: What are side effects of the seizure medications?

A: Some of the most common side effects of all seizure medications are sedation, fatigue and dizziness. Starting at a lower dose and slowly working up on the dose limits these side effects. Additional side effects vary depending on the medicine; there should always be a full discussion with your doctor so you know what to look out for. Although less common, allergic reactions such as rash and changes in mood should be monitored and discussed with the prescribing provider. Long term side effects of certain seizure medications, in particular some of the older medicines, include liver damage and osteoporosis.

Q: What is the prognosis?

A: The larger group of patients with epilepsy can stop having seizures with one or two seizure medications. However, about 35 percent of patients will continue to have some seizures despite treatment with medications. In this group of patients, further testing by an epilepsy specialist is indicated to see if there are additional treatment options.

Carol Ulloa, MD, director of the Epilepsy CenterCarol Ulloa, MD, is the Medical Director of the Epilepsy Center. She attended medical school at The University of Missouri – Kansas City. After completing her residencies on the East Coast and practicing at Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania for five years, the Missouri native returned to her roots in the Midwest and joined The University of Kansas Health System.
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