Types of Epilepsy: All You Need to Know

13 October, 2020
Epilepsy is a disease that affects millions of people globally. Knowing the types of presentation of this disease is essential to address it in the most effective way.

Epilepsy is a disease caused by an imbalance in the electrical activity of neurons in some areas of the brain. Something that not everyone knows, though, is that there are different types of epilepsy.

According to the Commission on Classification and Terminology of the International League Against Epilepsy, it’s characterized by the appearance of recurrent seizures, which have both neurobiological and cognitive and psychological effects.

Despite being one of the oldest diseases in history, many of its dynamics are unknown. For that reason, various pieces of research highlight the importance of this pathology. Consequently, the field of medicine found it essential to classify the types and patterns of presentation of epilepsy to learn how to deal with it effectively.

The epidemiology of epilepsy

There are three very important aspects when it comes to this disease. First off, we must learn what causes it and how to treat it. Secondly, it’s vital to know how it’s distributed throughout the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) came out with some statistics on epilepsy at the global level. Let’s see:

  • It’s estimated that, at any given time, more than 50 million people have been diagnosed with epilepsy in the world.
  • Depending on the age of the patients and the geographical area of study, the prevalence varies from 4 to 10 patients per 1000 people. It’s important to note that these figures double in poor countries.
  • About 80% of epileptic patients live in places where the economy is still developing.
  • 70% of individuals with epilepsy could live without seizures if the disease was treated properly. Unfortunately, in certain regions of the world, three-quarters of patients go untreated their whole lives.
  • Thus, people with epilepsy are three times more likely to die in comparison with the general population.

It’s safe to say that these data are devastating. Epilepsy can be treated with drugs but many people don’t have the means to get them and alleviate their disease. For all these reasons, it’s essential to know how to identify epilepsy and educate the general population about its effects.

Read also: Epileptic seizure: what it is and how to respond

Types of epilepsy

According to the Andalusian Epilepsy Society and the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE), there are two main variations of this pathology. One of them is defined by its general character and the other has a more focal nature.

Generalized crisis

Down below, we’ll summarize the different types of generalized epilepsy:

  • Generalized tonic-clonic crisis. A sudden loss of consciousness is its main characteristic. It initially causes general body stiffness (tonic phase) and then rhythmic movements (clonic phase). There can be other symptoms during these crises, such as tongue biting, urine expulsion, or injuries when falling to the ground. It’s the most obvious and most serious variation of the disease.
  • Absence: It’s characterized by a loss of consciousness with immobility and fixed gaze for a few seconds. It’s easily tolerated but can happen several times a day.
  • Myoclonic: It’s based on a sudden spasm in the whole body or in a part of it (especially in the upper extremities). It causes the individual to fall.
  • Atonic: Loss of muscle tone, falling, and a momentary absence of consciousness.

Except for the tonic-clonic variant, the rest of the generalized seizures are instantaneous with rapid recoveries. Much of the danger lies in the activity that the person’s doing at the time of the attack.

Brain activity.

Focal epileptic seizures

These variants depend on the area of the brain where the neuronal electrical imbalance occurs. There are different types according to their manifestations.

  • Without the disturbance of consciousness (simple partial seizures). A part of the body begins to shake for seconds or minutes. They can manifest with intense tingling, strange thoughts, or appearances of lights in the vision.
  • With altered consciousness (complex partial seizures). This one’s similar to the previous ones. However, there’s a loss of consciousness in this case. The difference from the generalized ones is the fact that the person doesn’t fall to the ground since there isn’t a loss of muscle tone. Nonetheless, they feel intensely dissociated from reality.
  • Bilateral seizure. It happens when a focused epileptic event extends from the focus point to the entire brain surface.

Read also: How to manage epilepsy and breastfeeding

Causes and treatment

The causes of epilepsy are several. Many studies collect the advances that science has made in recent decades in understanding the mechanisms of action and the underlying reasons for this pathology. The World Health Organization lists some of the most common causes. Let’s see what they are.

  • Brain damage from prenatal injuries or during delivery itself
  • Congenital malformations at the neurological or genetic level
  • Head injuries
  • Strokes (of the bloodstream) that limit the supply of necessary oxygen to the brain
  • Brain infections such as cysticercosis (invasion of Taenia solium larvae, which creates cysts between neurons)
  • Brain tumors

According to the Handbook of Epilepsy Treatment, the basic medication of all patients is based on the use of antiepileptic drugs (AEDs). These medications try to eliminate the appearance of seizures with the minimum number of side effects.

Furthermore, these drugs are quite cheap, some of them don’t even exceed $5 a year. Despite this, though, many people in developing countries can’t afford them. In addition, their administration is easy without major complications, which for sure facilitates the approach.

CAT scans serve to identify the different types of epilepsy.

Types of epilepsy: what you should remember

Epilepsy refers to an increase in electrical activity in a general or focused area of the brain. As you can see, there are various types according to their nature, in addition to other classifications based on the effects that epileptic patients have during their crises.

In some way, access to affordable treatment conditions this pathology. Sadly, a significant percentage of the population is unable to get their hands on it. In brief, it’s incredibly important to raise learn about the types of epilepsy in order to improve the quality of life of these patients.

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  • Epilepsia, Organización mundial de la salud (OMS). Recogido a 16 de julio en https://www.who.int/es/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/epilepsy
  • Commission on Classification and Terminology of the International League Against Epilepsy. Proposal for revised clinical and electroencephalographic classification of epileptic seizures. Epilepsia 22:489-501, 1981. Recogido a 16 de julio en https://web.archive.org/web/20090218004720/http://ilae-epilepsy.org/ctf/over_frame.html
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