• Epilepsy is a neurological condition – which means it affects the brain. It is also a physical condition, because the body is affected when someone has a seizure.
  • Epilepsy is described as the tendency to have repeated seizures that start in the brain. Epilepsy is ususally only diagnosed after the person has had more than one seizure.
  • The Greek philosopher Hippocrates (460-377 BC) was the first person to think that epilepsy starts in the brain.
  • Anyone can have a seizure if the circumstances are right, but most people do not have seizures under ‘normal conditions’.
  • Seizures are sometimes called ‘fits’ or ‘attacks’. Seizures happen when there is a sudden interruption in the way the brain normally works.
  • Epilepsy is a variable condition that affects different people in different ways.
  • There are over 40 different types of seizure. What seizures look like can vary. For example someone may go ‘blank’ for a couple of seconds, they may wander around and be quite confused, or they may fall to the ground and shake (convulse). So not all seizures involve convulsions.
  • Some people are unconscious during their seizures and so they do not remember what happens to them. It can be really useful to have an description of what happened from someone who saw their seizure to help with diagnosis. This is sometimes called a ‘eyewitness account’.
  • There are many different reasons (causes) why someone might develop epilepsy. Sometimes a cause for epilepsy can be found (for example if someone has had a head injury) but sometimes the person’s epilepsy starts ‘out of the blue’ and the cause cannot be found.
  • Epilepsy can start at any age, and it is often diagnosed in people under 20 and people over 60. This is because some causes are more common in young people (such as difficulties at their birth, childhood infections or accidents) and in older people (such as strokes that lead to epilepsy). For some people their epilepsy might ‘go away’ and they stop having seizures. This is called spontaneous remission.
  • Epilepsy can be difficult to diagnose and there are a number of different tests that might be done to help with diagnosis such as an EEG (electroencephalogram) or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
  • Epilepsy is usually treated with medication called anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs). AEDs aim to stop seizures from happening, but they do not cure epilepsy.
  • With the right AEDs, up to 70% of people with epilepsy could have their seizures controlled (stopped).
  • The first AED used to treat epilepsy was phenobarbitone in 1912. There are now over 20 different AEDs available in the UK.
  • For people who do not have their seizures controlled with AEDs, surgery may be an option. This can involve removing the part of their brain that causes the seizures.
  • Some people may have a form of treatment called Vagal Nerve Stimulation (VNS) therapy to help control their epilepsy. This involves having a special device implanted that sends regular electrical signals to their brain.
  • St Valentine is the patron saint of people with epilepsy.
  • Some famous people who have had epilepsy include the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar and the artist Vincent Van Gogh. More recently the actor Danny Glover, Rabbi Lionel Blue, publicist Max Clifford and rugby player Dean Ryan.


  • One in 20 people will have a one-off epileptic seizure at some point in their life (although this does not necessarily mean that they have epilepsy).
  • One in 50 people will have epilepsy at some time in their life (not everyone with epilepsy will have it for life).
  • Around 75 people are diagnosed with epilepsy every day.
  • More than half a million people in the UK have epilepsy. That’s about one in every 100 people. There are around 50 million people with epilepsy in the world.
  • Up to 5% of people with epilepsy will be affected by flashing lights (called photosensitive epilepsy).

© Epilepsy Society
May 2011.

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