Understanding the Nature of Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the brain and causes seizures. People with epilepsy often face stigma from society at large, simply because the general public isn’t educated about what epilepsy is and how easily it can be managed. Many people still believe that people with epilepsy shouldn’t be allowed to drive or have jobs where they operate machinery — and it’s these people whose lack of knowledge keeps these false rumors alive. Here are a few facts about epilepsy you may not know. It’s easy to educate yourself and break the cycle of ignorance.

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1) How is epilepsy diagnosed?

People are usually diagnosed with epilepsy after suffering more than one seizure that was not caused by a medication or another condition. Seizures can vary in intensity from long bouts of convulsions to practically undetectable, brief episodes that are almost completely unnoticeable. No one is 100% sure what causes epilepsy. Some cases are caused by traumatic brain injuries, but a large percentage of epileptics remain unaware of what caused their disorder. Roughly 39 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with epilepsy and 80% of those cases have been discovered in the developed world.

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2) What are seizures?

There are a wide variety of different types of seizures that people with epilepsy experience. In its broadest definition, a seizure is an episode that affects the electrical signals of the brain, causing a disturbance. These electrical surges that disturb the brain have a variety of affects on the person undergoing the seizure. Often, people fall to the floor and convulse, but just as often seizures manifest in small, unnoticeable behavioral changes. Many people with epilepsy find that with medication, they can manage their seizures and take back control of their lives.

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3) What types of injuries can occur during a seizure?

What many people don’t understand is that the risk of death due to epileptic seizure is quite low. Only about 1 in every 1,000 epileptics will die from Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP). Epileptics who get help immediately upon seizing are very unlikely to suffer complications. Typically, death occurs when a seizure is not managed correctly. Some common examples include choking on vomit or other fluid, or drowning if the seizure happens in water. Epileptics are also vulnerable to injuries like burns, or cuts and bruises, due to unexpectedly hitting the ground during a seizure.

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4) Are there different types of epilepsy?

Typically, if the average person knows anything about epilepsy, it’s that people with the disorder suffer from seizures. What they don’t know is that there are many different types of epilepsy. Each diagnosis is made by looking at the different factors and patterns of the patient’s seizures. These different factors include time of day, which parts of the brain are involved in the seizure, how the seizure is triggered, and genetic information, among many others. The type of epilepsy will also determine which medication and treatment will be most effective in helping to mitigate seizures.

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5) Is epilepsy contagious?

There are people out there who actually believe that epilepsy is contagious, and while it’s understandable to fear something that you know very little about, this is a sign that more should be done to educate the public about epilepsy. To stop this debate once and for all, epilepsy is not contagious. Perhaps people think that epilepsy is contagious because the cause of the disorder is still largely unknown. In addition, most types of epilepsy are not hereditary. The vast majority of the different types of epilepsy, especially in older people, are caused by traumatic events like tumors and strokes.

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6) Can it be treated with medication?

Modern medicine is truly remarkable as up to 75% of epileptics find that they are completely seizure-free when they work with their doctor to find the right dosage of anticonvulsant medication. Usually, a person who has had two unprovoked seizures will be given the medication as a precaution, with the idea that they will take it for their entire life unless the diagnosis can be disproven. For people who are high risk, often they are given medication after the first seizure in an effort to begin treatment as soon as possible. With this medication, many people find that they are able to eradicate seizures from their lives, and may not even tell employers or friends that they have suffered from seizures in the past.

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7) What is the best way to handle a seizure?

If someone around you has just gone into a tonic-clonic seizure (the medical term for the type of intense, convulsive seizure most often seen in movies), the best thing to do is to roll them on to their side into the recovery position, and pillow their head with something soft. This allows them to seize in a way that is the least damaging to their body. Make sure to watch them to ensure that they are not aspirating vomit, and that any fluid is draining from their mouth or nose on to the floor rather than being choked on. If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, or if the person has a rapid succession of seizures one right after the other, it is considered a medical emergency.

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8) Are all seizures a medical emergency?

While it may feel like a person having a seizure in front of you is a big deal, it’s important to consider the mitigating circumstances before summoning an ambulance. A seizure is only considered a medical emergency if it goes on for longer than 5 minutes, or if the person has multiple seizures one right after the other without regaining consciousness in between. However, if you are unsure of the person’s medical history, calling 911 is never a bad idea to receive help from an expert, even if it’s just support over the phone.

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9) Are there things to avoid when someone has a seizure?

Outdated research once suggested trying to restrain an epileptic person undergoing a seizure. While it may have been done with the best of intentions, this is no longer recommended. The best thing to do is to remove any obstructions from the person’s reach, and allow the seizure to run its course. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. As well, it is no longer recommended to attempt to insert anything into a person’s mouth while they are seizing. This used to be standard practice (as a way to try and avoid the person biting their own tongue), but is now considered a choking hazard.

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10) Is epilepsy linked to stress?

This used to be a common belief as well. Many people associated epilepsy with too much stress, and thought that by removing the individual from a stressful situation, they could curtail their seizures. While it would be nice to think that curtailing stress has a positive affect on a person’s epilepsy and seizures, unfortunately there just isn’t the research to back this up. There is some anecdotal evidence that suggests that lack of sleep (which is often caused by stress) is a seizure trigger, but doctors aren’t ready to draw a line directly between stress and seizures at this point in time.  Currently, doctors suggest that avoiding stressful situations is helpful in general for people with epilepsy, they just haven’t seen it specifically reduce the frequency or intensity of seizures.

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11) Does epilepsy affect a person’s intelligence?

It is absolutely not true that having epilepsy affects a person’s intelligence. While it may be more difficult for a child with epilepsy to keep up with their classmates in a traditional school setting, it is not true that their intelligence is any less than their peers. Many children with epilepsy find school difficult because some common side effects of a seizure — such as headaches, and fatigue — make it difficult to focus and remain alert in lessons.

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12) What are some other triggers for seizures?

Seizures can be triggered by many different things. Each different type of epileptic syndrome has its own specific triggers, and many people find that over the course of their lifetime, they are able to learn what specific triggers affect them the most. Seizures can be triggered by minor disturbances like lack of sleep or even alcohol consumption, but often are the result of more complicated hormonal imbalances in the brain.

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