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Understanding Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a problem with the brain’s electrical system. Electrical impulses cause brief changes in movement, behaviour, feeling, or awareness. These events, known as seizures, may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Epilepsy is widely known for causing convulsions: sudden, uncontrolled movements. But seizures can trigger a wide range of other symptoms, from staring to falling to fumbling with clothes. Doctors divide seizures into different types depending on how the brain is affected. Each has its own set of symptoms.

Absence seizures are often described as staring spells. The person stops what he is doing and stares vacantly for a few seconds, then continues as if nothing happened. This type of seizure is more common in children and usually starts between the ages of 4 and 12. Some children have as many as 100 absence seizures in one day. 

Generalised tonic clonic seizures are the most easily recognised. They usually begin with a stiffening of the arms and legs, and are followed by jerking motions. These convulsions can last up to 3 minutes. After having one, a person may be tired and confused. This type of seizure involves both sides of the brain.

In partial seizures, just one side of the brain is affected. A person having a simple partial seizure may have jerking motions or hallucinations, and still be aware of what is happening. When having a complex partial seizure, a person may wander, mumble, smack their lips, or fumble with their clothes. He or she may appear to be conscious to those around them, but is actually unaware of what they are doing.

Anything that disrupts the brain’s natural circuitry can cause epilepsy, such as:

  • Severe head injury
  • Brain infection or disease
  • Stroke
  • Oxygen deprivation

A specific cause is never found for nearly two-thirds of people with epilepsy.

Most people with epilepsy live long lives and rarely are injured during their seizures. A person who tends to fall during seizures may need a special helmet to protect his head. Some types of seizures may increase the risk of death, but this is rare. Seizures often strike without warning, so certain activities can be dangerous. Losing consciousness while swimming or even taking a bath could be life-threatening. The same goes for many extreme sports, such as mountain climbing. 

If medications fail or cause side effects, a doctor may recommend the ketogenic diet. The diet is high in fat and low in carbs, a combination that makes the body burn fat instead of sugar. This creates changes in the brain that help reduce seizures. More than half of children who follow this diet have at least 50% less seizures. Some even stop having seizures. 

VNS stands for vagus nerve stimulation, a treatment that is sometimes called a “pacemaker for the brain.” A small device is placed under the skin of the chest. It sends electrical pulses to the brain, through a large nerve in the neck called the vagus nerve. VNS may be an option for people who don't do well with medication.

If you see someone having a seizure, take the following steps:

  • Time how long it lasts.
  • Clear the area of anything hard or sharp.
  • Loosen anything at the neck that may affect breathing.
  • Turn the person onto his or her side.
  • Put something soft beneath the head.
  • Don't place anything inside the mouth.
  • Tap their Tap2Tag medical wristband.


Call the emergency services if a seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, happens again, or the person is pregnant, injured, or diabetic.

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