Estimates suggest that 3.4 million Americans today are living with epilepsy. It's a neurological disorder that causes irregular bursts of electrical activity in the brain, also known as seizures.
The brain generates an electrical current whenever we think, and the brain uses a substantial amount of energy to simultaneously put up "gates" to stop that electrical energy from spreading to where it shouldn't go, explains Evan Black, MD, a neurologist in private practice affiliated with St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"Anything that impairs those gates—anything that weakens the normal structure of the brain—can allow seizures to occur," Dr. Black says.
It's important to note that there are a lot of things that can cause isolated instances of seizure, including drug and alcohol use and head trauma. In other words, not everyone who has a seizure has epilepsy. But in people who do have epilepsy, something problematic is happening in the brain that causes seizures to occur repeatedly.
In some cases, epilepsy is a result of an injury or impairment to the brain, such as a stroke, traumatic brain injury or even a developmental disorder (like autism) that stops the brain from developing like it should, Black says.
That means that any of the following factors can increase a person's risk of developing epilepsy, which can surface at any point in one's life.
Trauma to the head
Any head trauma or traumatic brain injury can cause epilepsy, particularly if there's bleeding in the brain, Black says.
One thing to recognize: a head injury can be both a cause of a singular seizure or—if the damage is severe enough to cause repeated seizures—such trauma can cause epilepsy.
If you sustain a head injury, you'll want to seek medical attention from a neurologist who can evaluate the damage, assess the potential for complications and intervene as needed to prevent more damage.
Certain infections—such as meningitis, viral encephalitis and AIDS—can cause damage to the brain and increase epilepsy risk. Other infections that specifically target the brain, like neurocysticercosis, can also increase epilepsy risk for the same reason.
Complications arising during pregnancy that increase the chances a baby's brain won't develop normally could potentially lead to epilepsy. Congenital brain defects—problems a baby is born with—can also up a child's risk. Infections during pregnancy can also lead to brain damage in the baby that can eventually lead to epilepsy.
And any complications that occur during the actual birth, such as a difficult labor or a delivery that injures a baby's head (causing the flow of oxygen to the baby's brain to be blocked, for instance) can injure the brain and may lead to epilepsy, Black says.
Genetic factors are an exception to the predominant pattern of epilepsy being a result of a brain injury, Black explains, and research shows that epilepsy can run in families.
If you're born with certain genes you may be more likely to develop the neurological disorder. A genetic predisposition can increase the risk that if something does go wrong and you have a seizure, it will become a chronic problem. That risk is greater if both parents are carriers of the gene.
But just because you're born with a certain gene does not mean that you will inevitably develop epilepsy, Black notes.
Certain medical conditions
Medical conditions that affect the brain—either by stopping the brain from developing appropriately or by damaging the brain—can also increase epilepsy risk. These conditions include the following:
- Strokes result in damage to brain cells, which could include permanent interruption of the routing of the brain's electrical activity, leading to repeated seizures, Black says.
- Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia are neurodegenerative disorders in which nerve cells in the brain die before they should, Black explains. This may cause enough damage for epilepsy to develop.
- Brain tumors and problems with blood vessels in the brain can also lead to epilepsy if those conditions damage the brain's electrical activity patterns.
- Autism, Down syndrome and other developmental and genetic disorders are also linked to seizures and epilepsy.
If you have a risk factor for epilepsy, talk to your doctor
In many cases—such as those involving a genetic predisposition or a brain injury—a patient's susceptibility for having seizures is outside their control. But the good news is that when someone has a seizure—and often if they have epilepsy—treatment can often help the brain re-learn how not to have seizures, says Black.
"The brain is very pliable," he explains. "If a person has frequent seizures and does not seek treatment for them, the brain will actually learn how to have seizures."
That's why if you do have a risk factor or you have symptoms of a seizure, it's important to talk to your doctor about how you can reduce other risk factors and make future seizures less likely. If you've had a seizure, medications can help prevent further damage, Black says.
For anyone—whether you have a risk factor or not—taking good care of your brain is important. That means doing things like wearing a helmet during cycling or motorcycle riding to reduce the risk of head injury, keeping up with your vaccinations to lower the risk of infections, eating well and getting regular exercise and good sleep to help boost your brain health and your health overall.
By Sarah DiGiulio This information first appeared on Sharecare