What is Idiopathic Epilepsy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 29 January 2019
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Idiopathic epilepsy is a form of epilepsy with no known cause. When a patient is diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy, it means that doctors were not able to identify an underlying explanation for the onset of the seizures. It is possible that additional testing and treatment of the patient over time will uncover a cause, so the diagnosis may later be corrected to reflect the insights provided by new information. Patients with epilepsy are often encouraged to see a neurologist, a physician who specializes in neurological conditions, so they can receive the best evaluation and treatment.

Epilepsy is a medical condition characterized by the occurrence of seizures. In people with epilepsy, the electrical signals in the brain sometimes go awry, creating a situation akin to an electrical storm. People having seizures can experience a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from an absence seizure where the patient is non-responsive and unaware of the surroundings to a grand mal seizure where the patient experiences jerking movements followed by stiffness.


When a patient presents with epilepsy, one of the steps taken during diagnosis is an extensive patient interview and a series of imaging studies of the brain to learn more about the epilepsy and the causes. The doctor will see if the seizures are general, involving the whole brain, or partial, involving just one section of the brain. Learning the cause of the seizures can be very helpful for treatment. For example, if a brain tumor is causing seizures, treating the tumor should resolve the seizures, in addition to saving the patient's life.

In idiopathic epilepsy, no cause can be identified. Many people with idiopathic epilepsy appear to have genetic links to epilepsy, with a family history of at least one form of the disorder. Their brains are functionally and structurally normal, and no obvious causes like chemical imbalances, neurological abnormalities, and underlying disease are present. This does not mean that the epilepsy cannot be treated. Antiseizure medications can be used to reduce the incidence and severity of seizures.

As a patient is treated over time, additional information about the epilepsy will emerge. This can be used to identify a cause in some cases. Patients with various types of epilepsy can respond differently to treatments, and this can provide clues about the cause, as can seizure patterns and other health issues that arise while the patient is being treated for epilepsy. People with idiopathic epilepsy may need to try several treatment regimens to find one that works for them.



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