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Understanding Epilepsy and Seizures

Epilepsy is defined as possessing the tendency to have seizures. In the UK, there are over 600,000 people with epilepsy (British Epilepsy Association, 2015). The condition can develop at various ages for different people, from birth to adulthood.

An epileptic seizure is the result of a sudden intense burst of electrochemical activity in the brain which causes temporary disruption to ordinary brain functioning. Seizures have been classified generally as either partial (or focal) seizures where only a small part of the brain is affected, or generalised seizures where most or all of the brain is affected. The severity of seizures varies between individuals and the precise motor related consequences of the seizure will depend on which region of the brain is being affected by the increased activity. As a result, there are many different types of seizure, and individuals with epilepsy all experience the condition uniquely.

There are many examples of how seizures vary among people with epilepsy. Some will lose consciousness when others do not, some have seizures when they are awake but others experience them when they are asleep, and some will only have twitches or jerks whilst others will convulse vigorously as their muscles tighten and relax repeatedly. Seizures tend to last between a few seconds and several minutes but they often vary each time and between individuals. Following a seizure, the individual usually returns to normal.

Causes of Epilepsy and Triggers

Due to there being many types of epilepsy, the exact causes are often difficult to pinpoint. Developing epilepsy could be the result of brain damage, because of either a difficult birth, a severe blow to the head, a stroke, or an infection of the brain such as meningitis. However, it is estimated that 6/10 cases of epilepsy cannot be explained (British Epilepsy Association, 2015).

Having said this, some people appear to have a higher risk of developing epilepsy than others with 2-5 in every 100 children born to parents with epilepsy inheriting the condition themselves (British Epilepsy Association, 2015) suggesting some kind of heritability to the disorder. This may be because they inherit a low seizure threshold meaning they are more likely to have seizures or because they inherit another medical condition such as tuberous sclerosis that consequentially causes epilepsy.

Many people with epilepsy have found that they have certain ‘triggers’ which make a seizure more likely. These can include not getting enough sleep, stress, alcohol and flashing or flickering lights. Epilepsy is usually treated with anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) which act on the brain to try and prevent seizures from occurring. Approximately 70% of people with epilepsy could be seizure free with the right treatment (Boer, Mula and Sander, 2008).

How to help when someone has a seizure

If the person falls to the floor and looses consciousness whilst convulsing, you should protect their head from injury by cushioning it, look for an epilepsy identity card, aid breathing by gently placing them in the recovery position once the seizure has finished and stay with them until recovery is complete, reassuring them. Whilst they are convulsing you should try and discard of any nearby objects that can be easily moved which the individual may hurt themselves on, such as chairs.

Never restrain their movements or give them anything to eat or drink until they are fully recovered. You should call for an ambulance if you know it is the person’s first seizure, the seizure continues for more than five minutes or it the person is injured during the seizure.