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Epilepsy Affects Millions of People

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Epilepsy
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November Is National Epilepsy Awareness Month

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that makes people more susceptible to seizures. A seizure happens when brain cells misfire, causing abnormal electrical activity in the brain. People with epilepsy may have just one episode or many. They may recover quickly after the seizure or be affected for hours or even days. Most epileptic seizures stop on their own and don’t cause permanent harm — but for those who do suffer serious complications, early diagnosis and treatment can make all the difference.

It causes uncontrolled muscle movements and changes in sensation and awareness. A person having a seizure will usually fall unconscious for a few moments, or even longer.

Anyone can have one or more seizures at any time during their life, but some people are at risk for developing epilepsy because they have had repeated seizures that started from the brain.

When this happens, they send signals to the rest of the body that can cause muscles to tense up or become weak. This can cause you to lose control over basic things like walking and speaking.

After a seizure, it may take a while for your body to go back to normal. But as long as you rest and drink plenty of fluids afterward, most people get better quickly without any lasting damage from seizures.

Seizure Statistics

Epilepsy
Courtesy of H Bain (Flickr CC0)

Epilepsy affects approximately 1 in 26 people. Any age, ethnicity, or gender can have a seizure. They are not contagious and do not cause long-term harm to the body or brain. However, having one is still frightening for many people.

One out of every 10 Americans will have a seizure at some point during their lives — that equates to about 65 million people. It’s also very common for people who have had one seizure to have another in the future, but only about half of those will develop epilepsy (recurrent seizures). Even though anyone can have a seizure, there are several factors that put you at higher risk:

  • Age: Children under age 2 and adults over age 65 are more likely than others to experience epilepsy. The condition affects about 1% of people over the age of 65, but only about 0.5% of those under 20 years old. In fact, epilepsy is more common in men than women. It’s also more likely to occur in people with a family history of epilepsy or brain injury caused by birth trauma or stroke than it is to be randomly acquired throughout life.
  • Genetics: If you or your family members have had epilepsy or certain types of brain surgery due to stroke symptoms then it may increase your likelihood of having seizures as well. It’s important to note that while early-onset seizures can indicate a genetic predisposition for this condition, they do not necessarily mean that someone will develop epilepsy as an adult — or even at all.

Types of Seizures

Various types of seizures can occur. Focal seizures are the most common type and occur in about 60% of epilepsy cases. These are characterized by a sudden onset with a feeling of loss of awareness or consciousness. The person may look like they are staring off into space and not aware of their surroundings during the seizure, which usually lasts less than two minutes.

Generalized seizures involve both sides (hemispheres) of the brain at once and occur in about 30% of cases. They may cause loss of consciousness or convulsions that can last up to 15 minutes at a time.

Absence seizures are another type in which there is a brief loss of consciousness without convulsions. However, this typically lasts only a few seconds to several minutes per episode. Myoclonic or “jerking” seizures affect muscles on both sides simultaneously. They may begin as focal jerking movements but then spread throughout other parts of the body such as arms or legs until they become generalized muscle spasms lasting anywhere from one minute up to five minutes at a time depending on severity level, according to Seizure Types.

Tonic-clonic seizures typically last between 30 seconds to approximately five minutes before calming down again. Once receding back into normalcy over several hours after the initial onset occurs. patients can resume regular activities.

Epileptic seizures are dramatic, sudden events. They can take many forms, from convulsions to staring off into space for a few seconds. Some people have auras — sensations that they’re about to have a seizure — while others experience involuntary movements during the seizure itself. Sometimes people have difficulty speaking or trouble breathing during an epileptic episode.

Epilepsy Medications

Most epilepsy medications prevent seizures from happening. However, some can actually make seizures more likely. Some drugs may even cause your risk of having a seizure to go up and down, depending on how you use them. For example:

  • Some anti-seizure medications might not work at all for you if you take them with certain other drugs or alcohol.
  • Taking higher doses of certain anti-seizure medications can increase the chance that your seizures will come back after they’re gone for a while (recurrent seizures). If this happens, talk with your doctor about changing your treatment plan so that it includes another drug that works better for you and has fewer side effects.
  • Taking higher doses of certain drugs might also increase the chance that someone who doesn’t have epilepsy will start having seizures (seizures caused by medication). If this happens to someone close to you who does not have epilepsy and is taking one or more of these drugs as prescribed by their doctor — or even if they are misusing illegal drugs — talk with them about what’s causing their symptoms. Ask whether there are other ways to help avoid unwanted side effects without stopping taking any medicines altogether.

Seizure Myth

Epilepsy
Courtesy of Andee Duncan (Flickr CC0)

There are some things that seem like they might cause seizures but don’t. These include:

  • Alcohol: You may have heard stories of people having a seizure after drinking alcohol. However, this is rare and usually only happens if you’ve already had a seizure disorder or brain injury before you started drinking. It can also happen if you drink too much over time (binge drinking). For example, one study found that people with epilepsy were more likely to have a seizure after having four beers in one hour than people without epilepsy who drank the same amount of alcohol within that period. But remember — your odds still aren’t high enough to stop you from enjoying your favorite beer.
  • Sleep deprivation: Missing out on sleep will make anyone feel tired and grouchy — but it won’t trigger seizures on its own. The only exception is if someone has narcolepsy — a condition where they fall asleep at random times throughout the day. In fact, studies show that getting enough sleep helps lower the risk of having seizures. This makes sense because sleep helps regulate hormones that control blood pressure and metabolism as well as how our brains process information during waking hours. All this helps prevent other conditions associated with increased risk of seizures like Alzheimer’s disease or depression later down the road.

Breaking the Stigma

National Epilepsy Awareness Month was created to help break the stigmas surrounding the disease. For a long time, people attributed epileptic seizures to spiritual or demonic possession. This belief continued until 1980 when people suffering from epilepsy were finally allowed to marry in the United States.

Individuals who suffered from this disease experienced significant discrimination at school, at the workplace, and in other settings. Thanks in part to Tony Coelho, former U.S. Representative, and member of the Epilepsy Foundation’s Board of Directors, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990.

President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act restoring the original intent of Congress and clarified the definition of “disability” to encompass episodic conditions like epilepsy in 2008. By 2010, people who had pre-existing epileptic episodes were able to receive coverage for their conditions.

This disease affects roughly 3.4 million people in the U.S. It is important for people to be aware of this ailment so they are not afraid or confused if they see an epileptic episode.

By Sheena Robertson

Sources:

National Today: National Epilepsy Awareness Month – November 2022
Epilepsy Foundation: What Is National Epilepsy Awareness Month (NEAM)?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Epilepsy Data and Statistics

Top and Featured Image Courtesy of sharyn morrow‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of H Bain‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Andee Duncan‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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