Epilepsy and TBI: what you need to know

Epilepsy is a complex disorder. While doctors now know all the causes of epilepsy, we know that there is a link between traumatic brain injury (TBI) and developing epilepsy.

A TBI is when someone experiences a punch, shock, blow, or penetrating injury to the head. People can get TBIs in different ways. They can be (or appear to be) mild or they can be immediately life-threatening. Whether minor or severe, they can cause short-term and long-term complications. Some of those complications include vision problems, balance problems, emotional lability (easily changing emotions or emotions that don’t match the circumstances), memory problems, confusion, and sleep problems.

TBIs can also cause people to have seizures or epilepsy. A seizure refers to the event, while epilepsy refers to a person having repeated seizures. TBIs can lead to seizures or epilepsy. In general, a person must have two or more seizures for a diagnosis of epilepsy.

When do TBIs cause seizures? It depends. Some people may have seizures right after they have had a TBI. For other people, seizures may not occur until years after the injury. While any TBI can cause seizures, the more severe the TBI, the more likely you are to develop epilepsy. About 10% of people with a TBI develop epilepsy in the three years following the injury.

Who is at risk for complications from a TBI? Anyone who has a TBI. However, the lack of access to immediate care seems to affect the likelihood of long-term complications. The groups most at risk include those living in rural areas, racial and ethnic minorities, military and veterans, victims of domestic violence, prisoners and the homeless. These groups are also less likely to receive medical care or state-of-the-art treatment.

Of course, that means getting proper medical care after a TBI is important. If someone has a head injury, even if it doesn’t seem serious, get medical attention to rule out serious problems. Also watch out for an attack. While some attacks cause dramatic physical actions, others are much harder to detect. If you or someone you know has had a TBI, learn about all the signs of seizures and the proper first aid for them so you can watch for them to happen. If this is the case, inform the treating physicians immediately.

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