When I was around 12 years old, I watched a man in my hometown’s city park fall to the ground and have a tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure — the most severe type. People gathered around him, and I remember the severity of it and feeling that he would most certainly die. I lived nearby and hurried home, thinking how sad it must be to be “that way.” Also, as an uninformed kid, I assumed he was not all there mentally.
Fast forward to 15 years later, when out of the blue I had a tonic-clonic seizure of my own, followed by others that I would later, and fortunately, be treated for — and which are now completely controlled by medicine. The cause traced back to a head injury I sustained, which first led to migraines, then to a diagnosis of epilepsy.
I thought about that man in the park, and how wrong I was that day. And what I’ve learned over the years is how much room there is to educate people about the condition.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more Americans are living with epilepsy than ever before — more than 3 million of them. There are more than 30 different types of seizures, and they present through an array of symptoms and severity. There’s a good chance you know someone who in some way is affected by epilepsy, and there are also myths about the condition that are important to clear up.
Myth 1: All epileptic seizures involve convulsions.Wrong. Unlike tonic-clonic seizures, not all of the 30 types of seizures involve convulsions. Some are small enough to not even be recognized as a seizure at all.
“General tonic-clonic seizures only represent a minority of seizures,” says Dr. Dennis Cheng, a board-certified neurologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Not all seizures shake, and not all shakes are a seizure.”
Dr. Cheng says that many seizures present with initial complaints of memory difficulties and confusion. “For this reason, patients need to be evaluated for possible seizures if they experience these types of symptoms,” he says.
Myth 2: You should protect someone having a seizure by sticking something in their mouth.Definitely not. This could lead to injuries in the mouth. The best response is to roll them gently on their side and put something soft under their head.
Myth 3: Someone having a seizure can swallow their tongue.Nope. This is physically impossible.
Myth 4: People with epilepsy are mentally impaired.This is perhaps the biggest misconception of all. Epilepsy is not a mental disorder, but rather a neurological condition that affects the central nervous system. For the most part, psychological issues in epilepsy are limited to people with severe and uncontrolled epilepsy. It’s true that different conditions can cause epilepsy, such as stroke, brain tumor and head injury. But some people simply just have seizures.
Myth 5: Someone with epilepsy can’t work a full-time job, especially one that comes with responsibility.Quite the contrary. Fortunately, the vast majority of people with epilepsy are able to control their condition through medicine.
“Most people with epilepsy don’t suffer severe side effects, due to the advances of modern medicine,” says Dr. Cheng. “Most live perfectly normal lives, and have successful careers just like the rest of us.”
Robyn Bullard is a senior communications and marketing specialist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.