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Epilepsy: a common condition not commonly understood

Epilepsy brain scan images
Epilepsy Awareness Month spotlights this common neurological disorder, which affects millions of Americans but often is not well understood. (Source: Adobe Stock)

A few weeks ago, the seemingly healthy 10-year-old granddaughter of a good friend experienced a frightening grand mal seizure with no warning and no previous symptoms. She has since been diagnosed with epilepsy, a relatively common neurological condition caused by disturbances in the brain’s electrical activity.

During November, which is Epilepsy Awareness Month, her family and those of approximately 150,000 other Americans newly diagnosed this year will be trying to learn as much and as quickly as possible about this seizure disorder, which will affect one in every 26 people in the U.S. at some point during their lifetimes. Despite its frequency in the population, though, many people don’t understand why epilepsy occurs or how it impacts the lives of those who deal with it every day. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people in this country are now living with epilepsy than ever before…about 3.4 million, of whom nearly 500,000 are children. Although several drug treatments exist, about one-third of those with epilepsy still have uncontrollable seizures because none of those medications work for them. In 60% of patients, a cause for their seizures cannot be pinpointed.

For families and friends of people with epilepsy, it’s important to know how to help if the person has a seizure in their presence. In most cases, keeping them safe and as comfortable as possible until the seizure is over are the top priorities.

The Epilepsy Foundation offers guidelines based on three simple words – stay, safe and side – to remember when someone is having a seizure:

1. STAY with the person until they are awake and alert after the seizure; remain calm, and try to time how long the seizure lasts (emergency help is needed for those lasting more than five minutes).

2. Keep the person SAFE by moving him or her away from others. Never restrain the person in any way or put any objects in their mouth.

3. Turn the person on their SIDE if they are not awake and aware, making sure their airway is clear. Loosen any tight clothing around their neck, and put something small and soft under their head if available.

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