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Understanding epilepsy

By The Health News Team | November 30, 2022
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The word seizure often conjures up visions of an intense episode of a person having convulsions and who looks to be in grave danger. While some seizures are indeed more extreme than others, it’s important to understand the basic facts — and dispel some of the myths — about seizures and epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes seizures when nerve cell activity in the brain is disrupted. These are the types of seizures that are not temporary, such as those sometimes seen in children and caused by a high fever, but rather seizures that are recurring and unprovoked.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 3.4 million people — 3 million adults and 470,000 children — have epilepsy. While there are many different types of seizures, the questions about them are similar and common. Understanding basic information about seizures is important.

What are the main types of seizures?
“Simply put, seizures can be generalized, partial or partial that progress to generalized,” says Dr. Jennifer Jothen, a neurologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center and Sharp Coronado Hospital.

  • Generalized seizures are also referred to as generalized tonic-clonic seizures, which were formerly called grand mal seizures. “Generalized seizures can either cause entire body shaking and stiffening, or they can cause someone to stare into space,” says Dr. Jothen.

  • Partial seizures, also referred to as focal seizures, involve one area of the brain, causing seizure activity in one area of the body. However, they can sometimes spread to become a generalized seizure.

Can you develop epilepsy as an adult?
Adult-onset seizures are common and are triggered by a variety of causes. “Strokes, tumors, atrophy — which we see in Alzheimer's disease and memory loss patients — drug use, and head trauma or injury tend to be the more common causes,” says Dr. Jothen.

While your physician may try to get to the root of your epilepsy, such as disease or head injury, it can’t always be determined exactly what the cause is. Each case is different, has different symptoms and may be treated with different medications.

How can I help a loved one with epilepsy?
The most important things to learn are how to recognize when a seizure is about to happen and how to keep your loved one safe.

“To detect a seizure, look for a sudden loss of consciousness or the person staring off into space or seeming confused,” says Dr. Jothen. “On occasion, seizures can also be preceded by a scream or crying out.”

If someone near you is having a seizure, the best thing to do is to keep them safe and away from any sharp objects or anything that can harm them. If they are standing, ease them down to the ground gently.

And contrary to the decades-old myth about putting something in their mouth so that they don’t swallow their tongue, Dr. Jothen has one simple rule: “Do not put anything in the person’s mouth.”

Will epilepsy change my quality of life?
How epilepsy can affect your brain, memory and overall quality of life depends on whether the seizures are caused by an underlying reason, such as another disease or something as basic as a head injury. Patients themselves also play a big part in controlling the condition with the tools they have.

“If the seizures are not arising from some other disease process, your cognition should stay intact,” says Dr. Jothen. “Most importantly, continuing your treatment with medication is key.”

Diligence in keeping on top of seizure-controlling medications and not missing a dose is a top priority. And it is imperative to follow your doctor’s advice regarding lifestyle choices and mitigating conditions, such as lack of sleep, photosensitivity and medication interactions, that have been determined to cause your seizures.

Though there is no cure for epilepsy, Dr. Jothen says advances in medication therapy and understanding seizure triggers have come a long way in allowing patients with the condition. “Epilepsy can be well controlled, and patients with seizures will oftentimes lead very normal lives,” she says.

For patients needing further treatment, a procedure called Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is offered at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. DBS is a neurosurgical procedure that involves implanting a device that sends low-level electrical signals to help synchronize areas of the brain responsible for your body's movement.

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