Epilepsy Fact Sheet

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder of the central nervous system resulting in seizures that may have no apparent cause and that happen more than once. A seizure is a brief disruption of electrical activity in the brain that affects other brain functions. Epilepsy is not a mental illness, a sign of mental retardation, nor is it contagious. Having epilepsy can alter a person's life, however, because it is impossible to know when the next seizure will happen. This can cause problems at school, holding a job or getting a driver's license. People with epilepsy may also face discrimination from others who sometimes do not understand what is happening during a seizure.

What are the risk factors for epilepsy?

More than half the time, the cause of epilepsy is unknown. When the cause can be determined, it is most often due to head injury, infections or a tumor in the brain, a stroke, degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, substance abuse or hereditary factors. About 50 percent of children outgrow their epilepsy by the time they become adults.

How is epilepsy diagnosed?

A physician will consider a patient's history, an examination of the brain and nervous system, blood work and other tests in making a diagnosis of epilepsy. Eyewitness accounts of a patient's seizures may also help a physician determine the type of seizures involved. The electroencephalograph, or EEG, is the most commonly used test in diagnosing epilepsy. An EEG provides a recording of electrical activity in the brain. Some patterns of activity are unique to particular forms of seizures. In some situations, physicians may also use other kinds of tests to find what is causing the seizures.

What is the impact of epilepsy in New York State?

The number of individuals with epilepsy in New York State is unknown. Most studies suggest that slightly fewer than one percent of the population has epilepsy, which means that nearly 180,000 people living in New York have epilepsy. People who are developmentally disabled are more likely to have epilepsy. Approximately 9,000 New Yorkers are newly-diagnosed with epilepsy each year. One in 10 people will have a seizure at some point in their lives, but may not have another one. Three in 100 people will develop epilepsy by the age of 75. It affects children and adults, men and women, and people of all races, religions, ethnic backgrounds, and social classes. Most people learn they have epilepsy when they are children or after age 65, but epilepsy can occur at any age.

What types of treatments are available to control epilepsy?

Epilepsy often can be treated by medications and, sometimes, surgery. Drug therapy is by far the most common, and is usually the first to be tried. Most people achieve good seizure control on one or more of the medications currently approved for the treatment of epilepsy. Surgery has been an accepted form of treatment for over 50 years when medicines fail to prevent seizures. Neurologists, pediatric neurologists, pediatricians, neurosurgeons, internists and family physicians all provide treatment for epilepsy. Specialized care for people whose seizures are difficult to control is available in large medical centers, neurological clinics at university and other hospitals, and from neurological specialists in private practice.

Where can I go for more information about epilepsy?

  • Epilepsy Foundation of America

    The Epilepsy Foundation of America works to ensure that people with seizures are able to participate in all life experiences and to prevent, control and cure epilepsy through research, education, advocacy and services. In addition to programs conducted at the national level, epilepsy clients throughout the United States are served by affiliated Epilepsy Foundation offices in nearly 100 communities. Information about epilepsy chapters and programs can be obtained by contacting the Epilepsy Foundation.

    Epilepsy Foundation of America
    4351 Garden City Drive
    Landover, MD 20785-7223
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    The CDC Epilepsy Program supports program activities in the areas of improving care, improving communication and combating stigma, promoting patient self-management, conducting epidemiologic and prevention research, increasing public awareness and knowledge, and strengthening partnerships.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    4770 Buford Hwy, NE
    MS K-51
    Atlanta, GA 30341-3717
  • Epilepsy Coalition of New York State, Inc

    The Epilepsy Coalition of New York State, Inc. was formed in 1998 to promote awareness of epilepsy and its consequences. It also provides funding opportunities to the epilepsy service system throughout the state, with the goal of improving the quality of life for those who live with epilepsy on a daily basis. The Epilepsy Coalition has information about epilepsy providers in the state and the services they offer.

    Epilepsy Coalition of New York State, Inc.
    450 West Nyack Road
    West Nyack NY 10994
    Phone: (845) 627-0627 ext 112
    Fax: (845) 627-0629
  • The National Association of Epilepsy Centers

    The primary objectives of the NAEC are to connect people with epilepsy to specialized epilepsy care and to support epileptologists and administrators in the operation of their epilepsy centers. The NAEC provides a list of Epilepsy Centers in the United States.

    The National Association of Epilepsy Centers
    5775 Wayzata Boulevard, Suite 200
    Minneapolis, MN 55416
    Phone: 888-525-6232
    E-mail: info@naec-epilepsy.org