Epilepsy Awareness Matters: Get Informed and Take Action
November is Epilepsy Awareness Month. It’s a month devoted to circulating knowledge around epilepsy, dispelling myths, and to let people with epilepsy know that they are not alone.
Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions, yet the general public knows so little about it.¹ And so it remains for many, a mysterious malady. This general lack of knowledge leads to misconceptions and fear, mainly stemming from not knowing how to help during a seizure.
Better understanding epilepsy and providing tools to help people with the condition and their caregivers lead better lives is at the heart of what we do. We’d like to do our part by informing on what epilepsy really is, eliminate the fear surrounding it, and show that you can live with it and still follow the things that pull at you, see where intuitions take you, and embrace the sweet complexity of life, like everyone else.
What is epilepsy?
It’s quite odd that a condition that has been around since ancient times, around 2,000 B.C. still creates so much confusion.² Derived from ancient Greek, the term “epilepsy” means etymologically “take by surprise”.³ It’s not an illness or a disease, but a neurological condition which the person must learn to live with.
The causes can be complex, and sometimes hard to identify for about half the population with epilepsy.⁴ Infections of the brain, strokes, tumors, lack of oxygen during birth, and genetic factors are just some of the common causes.⁵ What’s important to remember is that epilepsy doesn’t affect intelligence, and it’s definitely not contagious.⁶
A spontaneous surge of electrical activity in the nerve cells of the cerebral cortex causes epileptic “seizures”, and there must be recurrent seizures in order for the person to be diagnosed with epilepsy. There are many different types of seizures.
They can range from muscle twitching or lapses in attention, to severe convulsions and prolonged seizures. They’re different for different people, and for each person may slightly vary in nature from one to another.⁷
Generalized seizures affect the whole brain. Tonic-clonic are the most well-known because of the visible symptoms they manifest: convulsive jerks, stiffening of muscles, loss of consciousness, and sometimes drooling and tongue-biting. When the seizure is over, the person immediately becomes conscious, but does not remember any part of the seizure.
Absence seizures are also classified as the Generalized type, however they do not produce much movement. Instead, they result in brief periods of loss of consciousness. Sometimes they appear as being in a daze, and can occur several times throughout the day.⁸
Focal seizures start in one area of the brain. They can also be referred to as partial seizures. They always affect only one hemisphere of the brain and are often characterized between focal onset aware seizures and focal onset impaired awareness seizures. In a focal onset aware seizure, there is no loss of consciousness, and the person can usually remember the seizure. They usually last for a minute or less.
On the other hand, during a focal onset impaired awareness seizure, the person’s attention is affected. They can last for a minute or two and are usually preceded by a feeling of uneasiness or nausea. Most people will move their mouth, rub their fingers or pick at their clothing. Some may say words or phrases which aren’t understandable.⁹
Unknown onset seizures
These occur when the origin of the seizure is not known. For example, if it’s someone’s first seizure and there were no witnesses. As more information is known, these can later be categorized as generalized or focal.¹⁰
How to help
Knowing more about epilepsy helps reduce the feelings of fear around it. Knowing how to react in case of a seizure will make you not only less scared if you witness one, but also very helpful to the other person- you may even save their life. Here’s what you should do:
1. Prevent the person from getting hurt
This means removing any sharp and potentially dangerous objects. If they’re wearing glasses, take them off. If they are on the floor, place a pillow under their head. If the person is lying down, turn them on their side. This allows any fluids to come out of the mouth.
2. Time the seizure
Note the time that it started and the time that it ended. This information will be useful later on.
3. Don’t stick anything in their mouth
If they are biting their tongue, it’s okay. It’s a misconception that the tongue can be swallowed. Sticking something in their mouth could do more harm and cause them to choke.
4. Should I call for help?
You should call an ambulance if the seizure continues for more than 5 minutes. For some people, longer seizures are normal, and an ambulance is not required. If they haven’t shared this information with you, it’s best to call an ambulance. You should also call for help if the person has injured themselves during the seizure.¹¹
When the person wakes up, it’s good to make sure that there aren’t too many people around that will press them with questions. When they’re ready, tell them how the seizure unfolded and provide them with all the information you have. The most important thing is to stay calm; most seizures stop on their own after a few minutes.
Those that have epilepsy should inform others about their condition and always have a written emergency care plan with them that tells people what to do in case of a seizure.
Living with Epilepsy
People with epilepsy are as intelligent and as capable as anyone. Sometimes geniuses have epilepsy, such as Julius Caesar, Einstein, and Alexander the Great among others.¹² They may have to take some extra precautions, and face different challenges, but they also achieve great things, and celebrate big successes.
Just take a look at some of our own epilepsy heroes. You’ll be inspired.
You may have epilepsy or know someone who does that is looking for added reassurance that they’ll receive timely assistance when they experience a seizure. Embrace2 by Empatica is an epilepsy monitoring smartband which can alert caregivers when it detects changes in movement patterns and physiological signals that could be associated with tonic-clonic seizures.
It also tracks physical activity and rest, which are displayed in one of its companion apps, the Mate App. This additional information can provide useful insights for doctors and caregivers.
We believe that talking openly about epilepsy is the best hope for ending the stigma around it. We encourage you to increase awareness in your own way. It could be by donating to your favorite epilepsy charity, sharing your story with close ones, or even something so simple as sharing this article. Every small action makes a difference.