Understanding Epilepsy

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Movie theater attendees are probably familiar with the “flash” and “strobe lights” warnings for children or adults that occasionally accompany films. These warnings are put in place to protect those with epilepsy and other health issues since photosensitive epilepsy seizures can be triggered by flashing lights or contrasting light and dark patterns. These warnings can help ensure the health and safety of those living with epilepsy. However, an accurate and a fuller understanding of epilepsy can help further protect those with epilepsy that live amongst us, even beyond the movie theater.

Epilepsy is a chronic central nervous system disorder that impacts brain activity. This disruption of brain activity can cause repeated or unpredictable seizures and other neurological sensations.  Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder, and there are currently around 3.4 million people in the United States living with active epilepsy. Around 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, which makes it one of the most common global neurological diseases.

The causes of epilepsy vary, and some of these causes are preventable. Traumatic brain injuries, strokes, birth defects, lack of oxygen at birth, and certain infections can all cause epilepsy. Cysticercosis is an infection that is the leading cause of epilepsy worldwide. Epilepsy caused by infections is an example of a preventable cause of epilepsy and is representative of the 25% of all epilepsy cases that are considered preventable.

Epilepsy is typically diagnosed with a neurological exam or blood test.  The neurological exam would test behavior, motor abilities, and mental functions to assess the type of epilepsy. Blood tests can test for genetic conditions or infections that may have influenced the epilepsy. Additionally, doctors can test for brain abnormalities with an electroencephalogram.

In media, seizures for epilepsy are typically characterized in a specific way: shaking, loss of consciousness, etc. However, despite this portrayal, seizures can vary from person to person. Doctors typically classify seizures under focal or generalized. Focal seizures result from abnormal activity in just one area of brain, and they fall into two categories: focal seizures without loss of consciousness, focal seizures with impaired awareness.  Generalized seizures involve all areas of the brain, and there are six types that are identifies: absence seizures, tonic seizures, atonic seizures, clonic seizures, myoclonic seizures, and tonic-clonic seizures.  Understanding that there are different types of seizures, and they can look differently will be helpful if you are witness to an event.

In some cases, the seizures associated with epilepsy can be controlled. Up to 70% of people living with epilepsy can become seizure-free with anti-seizure medication. After about two years of anti-seizure medication use without incident of a seizure, the medication use can also be discontinued. In many countries, anti-seizure medication is not easily accessible. This medication can be life-changing for those living with epilepsy, and effort must be made to increase global access to medication.

When medications fail to provide adequate control over seizures, there are other solutions that one can utilize. For example, many epilepsy patients can undergo surgery to stop seizures from happening. This option typically works best for people who have seizures that originate from the same part of the brain. Other options outside of anti-seizure medication include dietary therapy, deep brain simulation, and seizure dogs that are trained to respond to a seizure in someone who has epilepsy.

The stigma associated with epilepsy is a large aspect of the experiences for those with epilepsy. In some countries such as India and China, epilepsy is commonly viewed as a reason for prohibiting or annulling marriages.  Elsewhere in the world, people with epilepsy may even experience reduced access to educational opportunities, occupations, and health and life insurance. Epilepsy has an impact on the physical and mental health of those living with the disorder, but also on the opportunities and experiences of epilepsy patients. It can impact one’s safety and ability to perform certain actions like driving or working, but a public misunderstanding of the disease can also present challenges for those living with epilepsy.

Implementing warnings and improving access to epilepsy treatment can go a long way to improve the lives of those with the neurological disorder, but public understanding is also important to improving the lives of those with this condition. Something everyone can do is if you witness someone having a seizure is remember “Stay.Safe.Side.

  1. STAY with the person and time the seizure

  2. SAFE: make sure the person is safe

  3. Turn the person on their SIDE if they are unconscious or unaware