COLUMBIA, Mo. — Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions, affecting approximately three million Americans. Yet many myths and misconceptions hinder understanding, diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month, and a University of Missouri Health Care physician would like to separate fact from fiction.
“In terms of frequency, epilepsy is one of the top neurological disorders, and yet it is undertreated,” said David Lardizabal, M.D., a neurologist and medical director of MU Health Care’s Epilepsy Program. “Most people associate only loss of consciousness or violent muscle contractions, such as a grand mal seizure, with epilepsy. However severity of the symptoms depends on the individual patient.”
Epilepsy is a seizure disorder characterized by abnormal electrical activity in the brain that affects how a person feels or acts for a short period of time. Seizures are a symptom of epilepsy and can be related to an injury or family tendency. Severity of the seizure will depend on what area and how much of the brain is involved.
There are several kinds of seizures related to epilepsy. The most well known is the grand mal seizure, in which an individual loses consciousness and usually collapses. Loss of consciousness is followed by violent jerking, after which the patient goes into a deep sleep. During a grand mal seizure, injuries to the individual can occur.
However other types of seizures consist of less dramatic symptoms. Absence seizures, for instance, cause only a short loss of consciousness, usually only a few seconds. The individual typically stares blankly during the seizure and then resumes his or her activity after only moments, unaware of the seizure except, perhaps, for the feeling that they have “lost time.”
“Also because most epilepsy diagnoses occur in childhood, absence seizures can be confused with attention deficit disorder or even misdiagnosed as ADHD,” said Lardizabal. “This further confuses the diagnostic process and is precisely why specialists need to be involved in evaluating the patient.”
MU Health Care’s Epilepsy Program offers patients convenience and accessibility in diagnosing and treating the disease. The program is run by a multidisciplinary team comprised of a neurologist, psychiatrist, neuropsychologist, social case worker and several diagnostic specialists.
“Having this group work together allows us to diagnose and manage the patient holistically,” said Lardizabal.
Before testing begins, team members interview the patient to identify any risk factors associated with epilepsy. This can include childhood trauma, a history of blackouts or some kind of previous seizure.
“The gold-standard test is the electroencephalogram, or EEG,” said Lardizabal. “The test is painless and non-invasive and records brain waves to look for abnormalities. An MRI of the brain is needed to identify possible structural abnormalities associated with the seizure such as a tumor or stroke.”
Once diagnosed, epilepsy can be effectively treated through anti-seizure medication or surgery.
“Understanding the type of epilepsy a patient has will require proper work-up and treatment,” said Lardizabal. “But because there is misunderstanding associated with the disorder, many people who might achieve better seizure control haven’t gotten the help they need.”
For more information about epilepsy or to make an appointment with the epilepsy program at MU Health Care, call (573) 882-1515.