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Epilepsy, crushing a stigma

A month before my 18th birthday, I had my first seizure. My mother found me laying face down on the floor, unconscious. I wasn’t breathing. She called 911 and I woke up in the hospital almost two days later. They told me I would have surely died if my mother had found me but just a few moments later.

Not too long after that seizure, I was diagnosed with idiopathic generalized epilepsy and was prescribed Keppra. Fortunately, my epilepsy is now controlled and I am able to lead a normal life.

When I was first diagnosed, I knew very little about my disorder and that terrified me. I knew my great-grandfather was epileptic but lived a long and healthy life, eventually dying of old age. But then there was the daughter of our neighbors. She was also epileptic and died at the age of 15 as a result.

I decided knowledge was the best way to conquer that fear, so I tried to know as much about it as I could.

The longer I live with my epilepsy, the more I realize others are in the same boat I once was. Many people see it as a disorder where I could drop down convulsing in front of them at any moment and die. It’s unnerving. But it doesn’t have to be.

According to the American Journal of Neuro-Radiology, epilepsy is a common neurological disorder affecting approximately 0.5 percent to 1 percent of the United States population. It has been estimated that about 7 to 8 percent of the population experiences at least one seizure during their lifetime.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines a seizure as an episode of fits or convulsions.

At this point, it is important to note that not every seizure is an epileptic seizure. There are two types; epileptic and non-epileptic seizures, and the difference between the two is the cause of the seizure. A non-epileptic seizure occurs when a combination of factors such as abnormally high body temperature, brain infections such as meningitis, abnormal levels of glucose drug abuse and many more. An epileptic seizure occurs when a burst of electrical impulses in the brain escape their normal limits. These impulses spread to neighboring areas and create an uncontrolled storm of electrical activity. The electrical impulses can be transmitted to the muscles and can cause twitches or convulsions. However, not all seizures are translated in twitches or convulsions.

Epileptic seizures are not all the same. There are many different categories of seizures and they can present themselves in extremely different forms. To give you all an idea, I’m going to talk about four very different and very common types of epileptic seizures; myoclonic, atonic, abscense and tonic-clonic seizures.

Myoclonic seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation are brief, shock-like jerks of a muscle or a group of muscles. The person usually remains conscious, and the seizures don’t last more than a second or two. There can be just one, but sometimes they will appear in clusters within a short time. Myoclonic seizures are not generally high-risk seizures, and a person who has had a myoclonic seizure can continue their day normally.

In an atonic seizure, muscles suddenly lose strength. The eyelids can droop, the head can flop to one side and the person more often than not limply falls to the ground. The person usually remains conscious, and these seizures typically last less than 15 seconds.

Absence seizures can be divided into two subcategories; simple absence and complex absence. In the interest of keeping your attention, I’ll focus on simple absence seizures. These seizures can be described as “zoning out” for a brief period of time. The person having the seizure will stare into space for usually less than 10 seconds. This seizure is hard to notice due to how quick and subtle it is and can often be mistaken for simply not paying attention.

Radically different from an absence seizure, however, is a tonic-clonic seizure. This is what most people identify as a seizure when they hear the word epilepsy. Tonic-clonic seizures are a combination of tonic and clonic seizures. The tonic phase comes first; all the muscles stiffen and the person will loose consciousness and fall to the floor. The clonic phase is next, and in this phase the person’s limbs will start jerking violently and rapidly. Consciousness will slowly return and the person will be drowsy, confused and agitated. These seizures generally last 1 to 3 minutes, but one lasting more than 10 minutes needs immediate medical attention.

Many seizures, like absence and myoclonic seizures, do not need medical attention. The person affected will be able to continue their day as normal once the seizure has concluded. However, not all types of seizures are as tame. The aforementioned atonic and tonic-clonic seizures sometimes require medical attention if consciousness is lost or in the event of an injury.

So what do you do if someone around you is having a seizure and you think they may need medical attention?

“Neurology Now,” a journal of the American Academy of Neurology, has a published step-by-step guide to helping someone when they are having a seizure. First and foremost, you need to stay calm. Second, try and look for a medical ID bracelet and try to time the seizure. If the person is standing, prevent them from falling by helping them gently to the floor. Move furniture or other objects to prevent injury. Try to position the individual on their side so that any saliva or vomit can leak out of the mouth rather than choking the individual. Do not put anything in or around the person’s mouth. Do no try to hold the person down or restrain their movements. This could injure you or them. Let the seizure run its course. If the seizure lasts longer than five minutes, call 911 immediately.

Hopefully now you understand what epilepsy is, the different types of seizures and what to do in the case of a seizure.

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