Epilepsy is a common brain disorder affecting more than 4 million American adults. Doctors diagnose epilepsy when someone experiences two or more seizure episodes not caused by fever, low blood sugar or alcohol withdrawal.
In people with epilepsy, abnormal activity in the brain causes seizures, which generally fall into two categories: complex seizures — those that affect both sides of the brain — and focal seizures that affect only a specific part of the brain.
“There are many different causes of epilepsy, but most commonly there is no underlying cause to the seizures found,” says Dr. Jennifer Jothen, a neurologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center and Sharp Coronado Hospital.
Common causes for epilepsy include stroke, a brain tumor, injury or infection, and loss of oxygen to the brain. Two in three epilepsy cases are idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown.
What a seizure looks like and how to help
In some cases, seizures are practically invisible, with rapid blinking, a pause in speech or a far-away look being the only indication of abnormal brain activity. This type of seizure is usually short and does not require immediate medical attention.
Other seizures can be more serious. In a tonic-clonic seizure, also known as a grand mal seizure, the person may cry out, fall, shake or jerk, and become unaware of what’s going on around them. While this can be frightening to watch, you can provide help and comfort. It’s important to know what to do — and not do.
“If you witness someone having a seizure, make sure they are in a safe place and ease them to the floor if you have to,” says Dr. Jothen. “Make sure there are no sharp or harmful objects nearby that they could hurt themselves on. Never, ever put anything in their mouth.”
You should call 911 if:
- The person has never had a seizure before
- They have difficulty breathing or waking after the seizure
- The seizure lasts longer than five minutes
- They have another seizure soon after the first one
- They are hurt during the seizure
- The seizure happens in water
- They have a health condition such as diabetes or heart disease, or are pregnant
Knowing what NOT to do is important for keeping a person safe during and after a seizure. Do NOT:
- Hold the person down or try to stop their movements
- Try to give CPR — people usually start breathing again on their own after a seizure
- Offer the person food or water until they are fully alert
Tips for living with epilepsy
There are numerous medications available to treat epilepsy and reduce the frequency of seizure. For those who continue to experience seizures despite the use anti-seizure drugs, other treatments are available, including a nerve-stimulation device planted under the skin or surgical removal of the part of the brain causing the seizures.
As with many chronic conditions, self-care is important. Dr. Jothen offers these tips for those living with epilepsy:
- Take your medications as prescribed and on a routine schedule
- Recognize what triggers seizures (lack of sleep, flashing lights or alcohol), and try to avoid these triggers
- Keep a record of seizure activity
- Treat your body right — get plenty of sleep and reduce stress, which can be triggers
- Talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns
“Seizure precautions generally consist of common-sense scenarios,” says Dr. Jothen. “If you are doing something that could put you in danger if you were to lose consciousness, it is probably best to have someone nearby. There are a lot of people with epilepsy who are able to live very normal lives, as they are able to gain good control over their seizures with seizure medications.”