What Causes Epilepsy?

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What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain, and seizures are caused by a temporary disruption of the electrical activity in the brain.

Epilepsy is diagnosed when someone has a tendency to have recurrent seizures.

Approximately 3% to 3.5% of Australians will be diagnosed with epilepsy at some point in their lives and over 250,000 Australians currently live with epilepsy.

Epilepsy can start at any age although it is more likely to be diagnosed in childhood or senior years.

There are many different types of epilepsies and people’s experiences differ greatly. Some types of epilepsy are age-limited and the person eventually stops having seizures. For others, epilepsy is a life-long condition.

Approximately two thirds of people with epilepsy become seizure free with medication.

What causes epilepsy?

So, you’ve been diagnosed with epilepsy, and you don’t know why you’ve got it. Why do you, or why does your loved one have seizures?

There are many possible causes of epilepsy. but there are also situations where it is just not clear.

In about half of people diagnosed, they will never know the cause of their epilepsy.

Firstly, anyone can develop epilepsy. It does not discriminate and is seen in all ages and cultures.

Anything that causes damage to brain tissue, can cause seizures. Even if this is just a tiny area of the brain, it can affect how the brain cells send and receive messages and may lead to seizures and epilepsy.

Some known causes

People can have epilepsy from birth, inherit it or develop it from injury, disease, or infection.  Some events that can cause epilepsy include:

  • Head injury or brain trauma
  • Stroke or brain haemorrhage
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain for instance during birth trauma, heart attack or drug overdose
  • Brain infections
  • Brain tumours

In other circumstances, epilepsy may be caused by:

  • Brain abnormalities present at birth
  • Genetic factors
  • Conditions that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Alcohol or drug abuse

Sometimes there may be more than one cause of the epilepsy. Many times, there is no known cause

The cause may influence treatment

If you do learn why you have developed epilepsy, sometimes knowing the cause may help you understand it a bit better and give you some idea about the type of seizures you may have. It can also influence the type of medication or treatment best suited, the chances of seizures responding to treatment, and the possible course of your epilepsy.


A seizure happens when the usual electrical impulses in the brain are disrupted, causing them to rapidly fire all at once. Depending on where the seizure happens in the brain, this can cause changes in:

  • sensation and feeling
  • awareness and consciousness
  • emotions and behaviour
  • movement

Seizures vary. Some are severe and some very subtle. Some are very brief and some last up to two or three minutes. Most seizures are generally over in less than two minutes.

Under certain circumstances, anyone can have a seizure and not all seizures are diagnosed as epilepsy.