ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States and can impact women and men. An estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. have epilepsy, but there are countless misconceptions about symptoms and treatments.
Dr. Marianna Spanaki is a Neurologist at Albany Medical Center specializing in epilepsy— epileptologist. In addition to caring for patients, she hopes to educate the public on the myths surrounding epilepsy and dismantle the stigma surrounding the diagnosis.
According to Cleveland Clinic, epilepsy is a brain disease that occurs when nerve cells change electrical signals. Because of that, people can present with diverse symptoms when a seizure occurs.
The most common perception of epilepsy is the body uncontrollably shaking. However, there are more than 30 types of seizures with varying symptoms.
“Many individuals don’t even realize something is happening to them,” Dr. Spanaki said. “If they have a convulsion, this is a seizure. But they tend to ignore any other symptoms that may be a seizure, but they are more silent.
There are two major seizure groups: focal onset seizures and generalized onset seizures. Focal onset seizures start on one side of the brain, while generalized onset seizures begin on both sides of the brain.
Seizures can occur at varying levels of awareness and with varying symptoms. For instance, atonic seizures cause loss of muscle control, many times making parts of the body droop. On the other hand, Focal onset impaired awareness seizures cause the person to be confused or lose consciousness with symptoms of a blank stare or repetitive movements.
“Family members may be the ones to notice they have become absent-minded, may not respond right away to their questions, they may exhibit some movements of the mouth or the hands that don’t serve any purpose,” Dr. Spanaki said. “If any of these things happen, it might be a seizure, and it needs to be discussed with a health provider.”
Dr. Spanaki added that an epilepsy diagnosis can happen at any age, to any gender. However, women have some unique challenges when it comes to epilepsy because of changing levels of female hormones.
For women, levels of estrogen and progesterone shift every month and across a lifespan. In the United States, around one million women with epilepsy are of reproductive age, and Dr. Spanaki said this statistic means there are added variables for female patients to keep in mind.
“It affects when they become pregnant, when they deliver a baby, what medication they take during pregnancy,” Dr. Spanaki said. “But it’s very important to keep in mind that 24,000 babies are born every year to women who are on seizure medication.”
Up to 70 percent of those with epilepsy can become seizure-free with medication.
“Therefore, epilepsy should not have the stigma of a chronic condition you cannot treat,” Dr. Spanaki said.