Here are some frequently asked questions and answers on epilepsy.
Question: What is epilepsy?
Answer: Epilepsy is a controllable neurological condition caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain which results in temporary seizures that lead to an alteration or complete loss of consciousness. Normal brain function cannot return until the electrical bursts subside.
The word “epilepsy” comes from the Greek word for “seizure”. It is not a disease! Epilepsy is actually an umbrella term covering about twenty different types of seizure disorders.
Question: What are seizures?
Answer: In someone with epilepsy, the normal electrical functions of the brain are interrupted by intermittent bursts of electrical energy that are much more intense than usual. This is called a seizure. Seizures may include muscle spasms, mental confusion, a loss of consciousness and/or uncontrolled or aimless body movements.
There are two main types of seizures:
- Generalised seizures that begin with a discharge of neurons throughout the brain. They include “grand mal”, which is a loss of consciousness, stiffening of the body and jerking of the limbs, and “petit mal” with blank spells, staring and slight twitching
- Partial seizures that begin with a discharge of neurons in just one part of the brain. They include simple partial seizures (uncontrolled body movements, brief changes in sensory perceptions), complex partial seizures (confusion, loss of awareness, aimless movements) and infantile spasms (babies have sudden, jerking seizures).
There are also many less common types of seizures. Seizures may be frequent or rare, they may last a second or several minutes and they may be severe or mild. Any one person can have more than one type of seizure, and the pattern of seizures may change over time.
Question: How long does a seizure last?
Answer: The time differs between the types of seizure but a seizure can last from a few seconds to several minutes. Rarely, seizures can last many hours. In most cases, seizures are short and little first aid is required.
Question: Can a seizure be life-threatening?
Answer: Yes, but only rarely. When a seizure lasts longer than five minutes, medical attention is needed because brain injury and death may occur. Children with epilepsy should not be left alone as they may injure or harm themselves while having a seizure.
Question: What causes epilepsy?
Answer: In most cases the cause is unknown. However, there is a link between recurring seizures and the following:
- Head trauma as a result of motor car accidents, falls and blows, gunshot wounds or sports accidents
- Infections such as meningitis, viral encephalitis and sometimes mumps, measles and diphtheria
- Stroke and brain tumours
- Poisoning caused by lead or alcohol
- Injury, infection or illness that affected the developing brain of the foetus during pregnancy
- Lack of oxygen during birth
- Genetic conditions such as tuberous sclerosis, but heredity usually is not a direct factor in epilepsy.
Question: Can anyone have epilepsy?
Answer: Each person has a brain seizure threshold which makes him or her more or less resistant to seizures, but virtually everyone can have a seizure when the causes listed above are present.
Question: At what age does epilepsy start?
Answer: Epilepsy can start at any age but it primarily affects children and young adults. About 47% of cases develop before the age of nine, 30% between die age of 10 and 19, 13% between 20 and 29, 6% between 30 and 39 and 4% after the age of 40.
It is likely that people who develop seizures during their earlier years will see a reduction in the intensity and frequency of their seizures as they grow older. Often epilepsy will disappear completely.
Question: How is epilepsy diagnosed?
Answer: The doctor will:
- Take a medical history, asking for a detailed description of the seizures, as well as family and personal health histories
- Do a physical examination and have laboratory tests done to determine if the seizures are caused by a specific physical or metabolic problem
- Do a neurological examination which includes an examination of the nervous system. An EEG (electroencephalogram), CT or MRI scans may be used.
Question: How is epilepsy treated?
Answer: Most seizure disorders can be controlled partly or completely by:
- Anti-convulsive medication
- VNS therapy (an implanted device programmed to stimulate the vagus nerve).
Question: How can I help someone who is having a seizure?
Answer: It’s a good idea for those with epilepsy to wear a medical bracelet. If a seizure occurs, the bracelet will tell others what is happening so they can respond appropriately. Should you come across someone having a seizure:
- Don’t try to restrain or revive the person. If the person is seated, help ease him/her to the floor and put something under the head
- Don’t move the person to a different area unless the location is clearly dangerous, for example a busy street
- Turn the person over on the left side which is a better position for easier breathing and improved circulation
- Turn his or her head slightly downward so saliva won’t go into the lungs
- Remove hazardous objects that could cause injury
- Loosen tight clothing and remove glasses
- Never try to force something into the person’s mouth!
- It is not necessary to call an ambulance unless the seizure lasts more than five minutes, is immediately followed by another one, or if the person is injured, ill or pregnant
- When the seizure ends, usually within three minutes, let the person rest or sleep. Be calm and reassuring because the person may feel disoriented or embarrassed.
Question: How can we help create awareness about epilepsy?
- Get to know the facts on epilepsy
- Explain the facts to co-workers, family and friends
- Support efforts in your workplace and community to create awareness, promote legislation and design policies to give people with epilepsy a fair and equal chance in life
- Don’t discriminate against someone living with epilepsy or any other condition.