Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological disorders. The likelihood is that you know at least one person with epilepsy. One in 26 Americans has epilepsy — about 2.2 million people. Each year, more than 150,000 new cases are diagnosed, affecting people of all ages, races and financial backgrounds.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is hard to diagnose because there are many causes and it affects people in different ways. Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that causes recurring, unpredictable seizures when nerve cells in the brain fire in an abnormal way.

The kind of seizures, how often they happen, and their severity vary by person. Some seizures may cause a person to collapse or shake their arms and legs. Some seizures are subtler, causing a person to stare or blank out for a few seconds to minutes. The person may then feel confused and disoriented.

Going unnoticed

One patient, “Angela,” had these periods of blanking out since her teens. Her mom affectionately called her “My Little Space Cadet.” Her family doctor thought she might have an attention deficit disorder. Well into her 20s, still plagued by these episodes, Angela sought a second opinion. After undergoing some tests, she learned that she had epilepsy and that there were medications that could help control her seizures.

“About one-third of people with epilepsy have a form of the disease that resists treatment.”

For people with epilepsy, early diagnosis and better treatment leads to better quality of life. Too often, though, a person with epilepsy may be misdiagnosed or not receive the right treatment for many years. And that is a terrible loss, because these delays could lead to serious health problems, even death and prevent someone from living life to its fullest.

Improving detection

Scientific advances have expanded our understanding of the brain and given us new tools to diagnose and treat epilepsy. Breakthroughs in identifying genetic markers for epilepsy put us at the cusp of targeted treatments that will help more people with epilepsy.

For now, though, about one-third of people with epilepsy have a form of the disease that resists treatment. For this group, scientific advances cannot come fast enough. The funding that drives these breakthroughs, however, is severely limited in comparison to epilepsy’s impact. While epilepsy is the second leading cause of death from a neurological condition — and affects more people in the U.S. than multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease combined — funding is much scarcer.

Although we have made strides in diagnosis and treatment over the last decade, people with epilepsy still face many challenges, especially when it comes to public understanding of the disease. Knowledge is power, and raising awareness of epilepsy is critical: Better treatments and quality of life for people with epilepsy are at stake.