In many ways, epilepsy is a different condition in a woman than in a man. The differences arise because of biological differences between women and men, but also because of the different social roles they play. As a result of these biological and social differences, women with epilepsy face special challenges, especially in the area of reproductive health.
Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain. A child’s brain contains billions of nerve cells. They communicate with each other through tiny electrical charges that fire on and off in random fashion. When some or all of these cells suddenly begin to fire together, a wave of electrical energy sweeps through the brain, causing a seizure. Seizures interfere with the brain’s normal functions. They can cause a child to have sudden changes in consciousness, movement, or sensation. Some people use the term “seizure disorder” instead of “epilepsy” to describe this condition. In fact, both words mean the same thing — an underlying tendency to experience seizures.
Having a single seizure does not mean a child has epilepsy — epilepsy is the name for seizures that happen more than once without a known treatable cause such as fever or low blood sugar.
Pinpointing the cause of epilepsy is difficult at any age. In seven out of every ten cases, there is no known cause. These children are then said to have idiopathic epilepsy. “Idiopathic” is a Latin word meaning “of unknown cause.” There are many possible causes of epilepsy in children, including: problems with brain development before birth; lack of oxygen during or following birth; a head injury that leaves a scar in the brain; unusual structures in the brain; tumors; a prolonged seizure with fever, or the after-effects of severe brain infections such as meningitis or encephalitis. When a cause can be identified, children will be described as having symptomatic epilepsy. The seizures are thought to be a symptom of the underlying brain injury.
If you are a senior citizen, you can probably remember a time when there were no reliable treatments for epilepsy. People did not understand why seizures happened and they were afraid of them. You may remember, as a child, that families often sent people with seizures off to institutions, or kept them at home, isolated from others. And you may have heard it whispered (incorrectly) that epilepsy is a form of mental illness.