Ideas about the causes of epilepsy

A change in brain chemistry can cause brain cells (neurons) to fire off in sudden bursts, triggering an epileptic seizure. Why this happens is still not exactly known. Many people we interviewed explained that, although the causes of epilepsy are often unknown, they sometimes wondered what might have brought on their condition.

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There are many causes of epilepsy. They include head injuries, brain tumours, infections, brain injuries at birth and inherited diseases. Occasionally, epilepsy can begin many years after the damage has occurred. For many people with epilepsy, no known cause is ever found. In the generalised epilepsies, genetic factors are likely to play a role. Although some epilepsies are hereditary, in most cases this is not so and the risks of passing epilepsy on to children are very small. 

Some people's epilepsy is caused by a specific structural problem in part or parts of the brain. This may have resulted from some form of head injury, occurring either at birth or in later life, or from a brain infection, for example. It is also possible that the brain did not develop properly or there is some form of scarring, lesion or a birth-mark on the brain which the person was born with. Some of the people we interviewed discussed having accidents or knocks to the head as possible causes. Others noted causes such as lesions and scars.

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Some people speculated whether their epilepsy had been caused by meningitis, measles or febrile convulsions as infants. Many also pointed out, though, that this had not been confirmed by doctors. One woman, whose son had severe epilepsy, explained that the seizures were a symptom of a more serious condition. A few people reported having a brain tumour that was causing the seizures. One woman explained that a stroke, which starves the brain of oxygen, had caused her epilepsy.

Several of those interviewed said that although they did not know what might have caused their epilepsy, they believed that stress played an important part in its onset. One woman advised against dwelling on the causes of epilepsy and explained why she was unconcerned with the causes of her condition.

Last reviewed May 2016.
Last updated March 2014.


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