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What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition that affects the central nervous system and can make a person susceptible to recurrent seizures, abnormal behavior, and loss of consciousness or awareness. The actual manifestation varies widely from one person to another.

It’s important to understand the symptoms to know if you should get tested for epilepsy. It can affect people of all ages, identities, and backgrounds. More than three million people in the United States have epilepsy, which makes it one of the most common nervous system disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U of U Health epilepsy specialist, Dr. Arain smiles with his patient in the exam room


Our comprehensive Epilepsy Program delivers world-class care for epilepsy patients with state-of-the-art techniques and treatment approaches. University of Utah Health is one of only a few medical centers in the United States with such a broad range of care for epilepsy.

Our team of physicians and medical professionals provide a comprehensive approach to diagnose and manage seizure disorders and epilepsy. Our collaborative, multidisciplinary team includes:

  • board-certified epileptologists,
  • an epilepsy neurosurgeon,
  • neuroradiologists, and
  • a dedicated team of nurses and technologists.

What are the Symptoms for Epilepsy?

Epilepsy has a wide range of symptoms that can manifest differently for different people. Many people associate epilepsy with convulsions, and that can be one sign of this condition. But people can and often do experience epilepsy without ever having a convulsion.

The most common symptoms include:

  • convulsions;
  • blackouts, or short periods of time when you don’t remember what just happened;
  • staring off into space, feeling dazed, or being unresponsive;
  • brain that feels “foggy”;
  • sudden falls or other seemingly “clumsy” behavior; and
  • frequent repetitive movements, such as blinking, lip smacking or head nodding.

Epilepsy Symptoms in Kids & Babies

People of all ages (babies, children, and adults) can experience epilepsy and it’s important to understand common symptoms of epilepsy in children. Babies, toddlers, and younger children won’t be able to tell you exactly what is going on and you will need to recognize symptoms to know when to go to the doctor.

Epilepsy symptoms in kids and babies include:

  • complaints of frequent, sudden stomach pain;
  • sleepiness or confusion following stomach pain or other symptoms;
  • sleeping more than normal;
  • irritability after waking up;
  • complaints about things that taste, smell, feel, look, or sound weird;
  • sudden bursts of fear or anger that come seemingly out of nowhere; and
  • in babies, “jackknife” movements while sitting or repetitive jerking grabbing movements with both arms while lying down.

Many of these signs are also similar to normal childhood behaviors, so it’s difficult to know when it’s epilepsy. In addition to monitoring symptoms yourself, talk to your child’s doctor about your concerns. If your child is in school, discuss it with his or her teacher so they can notify you if similar things happen during the school day.

Epilepsy Causes

There are two things that can cause epilepsy:

GeneticsAn estimated 60 percent of people experience epilepsy due to an inherited (genetic) condition or as the result of an abnormal brain condition that you are born with. While symptoms can begin at any age, a person with genetic epilepsy is most likely to experience symptoms before age 20.

Acquired—The other 40 percent of people experience epilepsy as a result of something that happens, such as a head injury, tumor, cancer, stroke, or infection. These epilepsy symptoms can appear at any age. People over age 65 are at higher risk of developing epilepsy after a head injury or stroke.

Find a Neurologist

Types of Seizures We Treat

Our neurologists treat all types of epileptic seizures, including the two main types:

  • FocalThe result of abnormal activity in a very specific part of your brain that can spread to other areas.
  • Generalized—These start everywhere in your brain at the same time, and often includes involuntary loss of muscle control or involuntary muscle movements (jerking seizures).

Focal seizures

  • Seizure with no loss of consciousnessYou may experience altered emotions or changes in taste, sight, smell, or hearing. These seizures can also lead to involuntary movements, like jerking in the arm or leg.
  • Seizure with loss of consciousness or impaired awarenessCommon symptoms include a person not responding to his or her surroundings and repetitive movements like lip smacking, head nodding or walking in circles.

Generalized seizures

  • Absence seizuresThese often occur in children and include staring into space, subtle movements like rapid blinking or lip smacking, and brief loss of awareness.
  • Atonic seizuresLoss of muscle control that causes someone to fall or collapse.
  • Clonic seizuresThese entail involuntary muscle movements, ticks, or jerking, usually in the arms, legs, head, and face area.
  • Myoclonic seizures—Symptoms include sudden twitching or jerking in the arms and legs.
  • Tonic seizures—A person with this type of seizure may collapse or fall due to stiffening in the back, arm, or leg muscles.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures—This is the most dramatic and best-known type of seizure, which involves loss of consciousness, stiffening and/or shaking, and other involuntary actions like loss of bladder control or biting the tongue.

Epilepsy Diagnosis & Testing

Diagnostic Tests We Use

We use several diagnostic tools and tests to determine if you or your loved one has epilepsy. A neurologist will determine which of the following test(s) you'll need after your initial consultation.

U of U Health epilepsy specialist examines patient

Epilepsy Treatments

Our first line of treatment for epilepsy is medications. However, of the estimated three million people in the U.S. with epilepsy, approximately one-third do not respond to medications. The possibility of becoming seizure-free goes down with each additional medication trial. Surgery can be a safe and highly effective alternative if your seizures are not controlled after trying two medications.

Research has shown that surgical treatment of epilepsy consistently provides the best outcomes. We recommend that patients with hard-to-treat cases of epilepsy be evaluated by our epilepsy specialists.

Surgery Options

Can Epilepsy Be Cured?

For some people, epilepsy can be cured. Benign or mild epilepsy symptoms in children may go away as they get older. Seizure medication can also cure epilepsy in some situations. We consider epilepsy to be “cured” after a person is seizure-free for 10 years and has gone at least five years without medication.

If medication does not cure or control your epilepsy, surgery may be an option. Our epilepsy specialists can help you determine if your seizures are in a location where surgery will help treat, control, or cure them.

Make An Appointment with Our Neurologists

Many of the symptoms of epilepsy are similar to symptoms of other medical conditions. It’s important to get a proper diagnosis and rule out other potential causes. Talk to your primary care provider if you think that you or your loved one might have epilepsy. Many primary care providers can diagnose epilepsy and prescribe medication as an initial treatment.

Patients can also schedule an appointment with our epilepsy clinic by calling 801-585-7575. Some insurance plans require a referral from a primary care provider to see a specialist. Our schedulers can request a referral from your primary care provider. You can also contact your insurance carrier for specific questions about your coverage.

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