Epilepsy is a common condition that affects around 450,000 people in the UK; commonly, symptoms develop in childhood but some people may not develop symptoms until adulthood. Epilepsy causes recurrent seizures or fits; these are caused by interruptions in the nerve impulses, which facilitate the communication between nerve cells in the brain. There are three main types of epilepsy; these include:

  • Symptomatic epilepsy: this is when the symptoms are caused by damage to the brain
  • Cryptogenic epilepsy: this is when there is no evidence of damage to the brain but the symptoms are associated with a degree of damage to the brain
  • Idiopathic epilepsy: this is when no obvious cause can be identified

What causes epilepsy?

There are a number of possible causes of symptomatic epilepsy; these include:

Symptomatic epilepsy:

  • Head injuries
  • Strokes
  • Cerebral tumours
  • Drug abuse
  • Excessive drinking
  • Health conditions which affect the brain (such as meningitis)
  • Problems during birth (such as having the umbilical cord twisted around the neck)

The causes of cryptogenic and idiopathic epilepsy remain unknown and research in this area is ongoing.

Possible triggers for seizures include:

  • Stress
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Illegal drugs
  • Flashing lights
  • Drinking alcohol

Symptoms of epilepsy

The most common symptom of epilepsy is a seizure; seizures are categorised as partial or generalised seizures. Partial seizures may be simple (where the patient remains conscious) or complex (when the patient loses consciousness and has no memory of the seizure). Common symptoms are listed below:

Simple partial seizures:

  • Changes in the way things look, feel, smell and taste
  • Pins and needles in the arms and legs
  • Experiencing déjà vu
  • Stiffness in the muscles
  • Twitching on one side of the body

Complex partial seizures:

  • Irregular movements
  • Smacking the lips
  • Making noises
  • Rubbing hands
  • Moving the arms suddenly

Complex seizures:

  • Absences: these cause people to lose awareness of their environment for a period of time; this is most common amongst children
  • Myoclonic jerks: this causes the arms and legs to twitch suddenly
  • Atonic seizures: this causes the muscles to become relaxed; it may cause people to fall suddenly
  • Tonic colic seizures: this is the most common type of seizure. The muscles become stiff and then the arms and legs will begin to twitch; most people consciousness
  • Clonic seizures: this is characterised by long periods of twitching
  • Aura symptoms, including flashes of light, zigzag patterns and spots of light

Treating epilepsy

Once somebody has been diagnosed with epilepsy they will usually be given medication to control their condition; this medication is known as anti-epileptic drugs. Anti-epileptic drugs do not cure epilepsy but they help to prevent fits. It is important to follow the dosage instructions carefully. In extreme cases, where treatment has failed to work over a long period of time, surgery may be carried out. Surgery is only recommended when the seizures are caused by one tiny part of the brain and this part is not essential for normal brain function.

Guide to Brain and Nerve Conditions

Brain and nerve conditions Intro

Alzheimers disease



Multiple sclerosis

Parkinson’s disease

Support for people with neurological conditions and their relatives