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What is epilepsy or “fits”?

People with epilepsy or “fits” are just like everyone else, except that they are prone to recurrent seizures. A seizure is caused by a temporary change in the way the brain cells work. The brain is like a computer, which consists of a vast network of nerve cells called neurons. The body has its own inbuilt balancing mechanisms. These ensure that messages usually travel between nerve cells in an orderly way. However sometimes – quite without warning – an upset in brain chemistry causes the messages to become scrambled. When this happens the neurons fire off faster than usual and in bursts. It’s this disturbed activity that triggers off a seizure.

During a seizure the person may black out or experience a number of unusual sensations or movements. The whole thing usually only lasts a matter of seconds or minutes, after which the brain cells return to normal. Epilepsy can affect anyone, at any age and from any walk of life. Boys and men tend to be slightly more prone than girls and women – though no one really knows why. Many of those who develop epilepsy start having seizures during childhood, but it can develop at any age.
Sometimes the reason epilepsy develops is obvious: brain damage caused by a difficult birth; a severe blow to the head; a stroke that starves the brain of oxygen; or an infection of the brain such as meningitis. In some people the tendency to have seizures runs in the family.

There are many different kinds of epilepsy and over 40 different types of seizures. These seizures affect people in different ways. Seizures can be of two types – generalised or partial. Symptoms will depend on where the change in brain activity begins and how widely and rapidly it spreads out. Partial seizures, as the name suggests, start in just one part of the brain. They can be either simple partial seizures or complex partial seizures but either way the electrical discharge may stay in one spot or may spread to the rest of the brain.

Seizures may appear as any of the following:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Unusual, sudden body movements such as stiffening and jerking
  • A convulsion with total loss of consciousness
  • Temporarily altered behaviour
  • Staring and blinking
  • A frightened look or lack of response
  • A strange feeling or unusual taste
  • Lip smacking and chewing
  • Walking around without any purpose
  • Fiddling with clothes/objects nearby
  • Speaking in an unintelligible way

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