Epilepsy is a brain disorder characterized by repeated seizures that are not caused by a temporary underlying medical condition. A seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain that causes changes in behavior, movement, and consciousness. If you have a seizure, it doesn’t mean you have epilepsy, but a person may be diagnosed with epilepsy if they have 2 or more seizures.
Epilepsy affects people in different ways because there are different kinds of seizures and many causes. Sometimes the cause is unknown. Anything that disrupts the normal electrical activity in the brain can cause seizures including stroke, autoimmune disorders, infectious diseases, or traumatic brain injury. Some problems during pregnancy and childbirth can lead to epilepsy, as well.
Signs of a seizure can vary widely and may seem mild or intense. Some signs include blank staring, blinking, or nodding; loss of awareness; sudden jerks of muscles, shaking and stiffness in arms and legs; or even going suddenly limp. An episode can last a few seconds or a few minutes.
If you suspect you or your child is experiencing seizures, you will need to talk to a health care provider right away. They will need to know this key information:
What is happening during the suspected seizure, for example are you losing awareness, staring, having muscle twitching, becoming suddenly limp?
What were you doing before the seizure started?
How long did it last?
How often are the seizures occurring?
How do you feel afterwards?
Risks for some of the causes of epilepsy can be reduced. Take steps to prevent traumatic brain injury by always wearing seatbelts, using car seats properly, and wearing protective headgear when playing sports or cycling. Adults should lower their chances of stroke and heart disease, which restrict oxygen to the brain. Eating well, exercising safely, and not using tobacco are health actions that may prevent epilepsy later in life. Washing hands, preparing food properly, and getting vaccinated against infectious diseases will lower chances of experiencing infections that can lead to epilepsy.
You can also help if you see someone experiencing a seizure. Epilepsy is not contagious so you cannot acquire it from assisting someone in their recovery. For any type of seizure, the general steps include staying with the person until they are fully awake, help them stay safe, and time the seizure so you can tell them that important information for their records. It is also useful to look for medical ID on the person. Once they are alert and able to communicate, tell them what happened in very simple terms.
When most people think of a seizure, they think of the generalized, tonic-clonic (or grand mal) where the person may fall, shake, and become unaware of what’s going on. Ease the person to the ground and cushion their head with something small and soft. Turn them onto their side. Clear the area of anything hard or sharp and remove their eyeglasses to avoid injury. Loosen clothing that may restrict breathing. Do NOT put anything into the person’s mouth: it is a myth that people will swallow their tongue when seizing. Do NOT try to restrain their movements while they are in the seizure as this may cause them to try to fight back.
It is not necessary to call for emergency assistance for every seizure, but do call 911 if the seizure:
Lasts more than 5 minutes, or another seizure starts soon after the first one ends.
Is taking place in the water.
The person is pregnant or has a known medical condition like diabetes or a heart condition.
The person is injured.
Epilepsy is common, challenging, and complex for the individual living with it. By raising awareness, we can help people live their best lives while managing epilepsy. If you need a referral to services to support a child with special needs, including epilepsy, NCHD may be able to help. Please call our offices or see the webpage https://www.nchd.org/childrenspecialneeds.