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Epilepsy

How Epilepsy Affects Women

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Updated September 06, 2009

Over 2 million Americans have epilepsy. Approximately half of epilepsy patients are girls and women. Every year about 180,000 new cases of epilepsy are diagnosed in the US. Although the disorder most often occurs in children and the elderly, it also develops between the ages of 20 and 50.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is the second most common neurological disorder seen by physicians (headaches are the most common reason for doctor visits). Recurrent episodes of seizures are caused by a disturbance in the brain's electrical system. There are several types of seizure disorders; the two most common are called partial seizures and generalized seizures:
  • Partial seizures affect one hemisphere of the brain.

  • Generalized seizures start in both sides of the brain at the same time causing an immediate loss of consciousness.

The length and severity of seizures varies from a few seconds to several minutes, and includes symptoms ranging from blank stares and lip smacking to extreme jerking of the arms and legs.

What Causes Epilepsy?

There are many possible causes for epilepsy including:
  • infections,
  • head injuries,
  • brain tumors,
  • brain injuries at birth,
  • and inherited disease.

However, it's important to understand approximately 65% of patients never discover the cause of their epilepsy.

How Does Epilepsy Affect Women?

Women diagnosed with epilepsy face unique health issues that include reproductive problems, osteoporosis, excessive weight gain, and sexual dysfunction.
  • Fertility rates for women with epilepsy are about a third lower than the general population. Although this may be partly due to the fact that women with seizure disorders may be reluctant to have children, research shows that these women face more menstrual abnormalities, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and other reproductive problems which can interfere with normal fertility. The causes of these reproductive problems have been linked to seizures and the side effects of certain anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs).

  • According to Dr. Cecilie M. Lander of Epilepsy Queensland, the drugs of first and second choice for most women with primary generalized epilepsy are valproate and lamotrigine in whatever dose controls the epilepsy. She also advises that women who may unexpectedly become pregnant should take the "reasonable insurance" of 1 mg of folic acid daily.

  • AEDs that can interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills include Dilantin (phenytoin), Tegretol (carbamazephine), and barbiturates such as Phenobarb, Prominal, Mysoline, and Topamax (topiramate).

Women with epilepsy should discuss any potential drug interactions, side effects, and potential health risks caused by anti-epileptic medications with their physicians.

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