Epilepsy is one of the most common medical conditions in the UK, affecting 600,000 people. That’s one in every 103 people. Epilepsy is a neurological condition that results in seizures, though it is worth noting that not all seizures are epileptic seizures: certain heart conditions and diabetes can also cause them.
Oddly, the condition is commonly diagnosed in those at polar opposites of the age spectrum: children and those over 65. To receive a diagnosis of epilepsy, a patient generally has to have suffered more than one seizure.
The epilepsy action website provides some interesting statistics about the condition. Examples include:
- 87 people are diagnosed with epilepsy every day.
- Only 52% of people with epilepsy are seizure-free.
- With the correct treatment, it is estimated that 70% of people could be seizure-free.
- Around five people in every 100 will have an epileptic seizure at some time in their life. Out of these five people, around four will go on to develop epilepsy.
Epilepsy can start at any age and there are different types of the condition. Some forms can last for a limited amount of time, with the person affected eventually having no more seizures. For the majority though, epilepsy is a life-long condition.
Interestingly, in over half of all people with epilepsy doctors are unsure to as what caused it. Possible causes of the condition that doctors can link to cases include:
- A brain infection, such as meningitis.
- A stroke.
- A severe head injury.
- Problems during birth, causing the baby to receive less oxygen.
According to the NHS, around one in three people with epilepsy will have a family member with the condition. The inheritance of the condition is currently being studied by scientists, to see how and why this occurs.
Types of epileptic seizure
Epileptic seizures are caused by rapid and erratic electrical impulses from the neurons in the brain, causing a temporary disruption. There are a number of different types of seizure, with the affects on the person suffering depending on which part of the brain has been affected.
Partial seizures only affect a small part of the brain, and there are two types:
- Simple partial seizures, during which you remain completely conscious but often experience sudden intense emotion and pins and needles in your limbs.
- Complex partial seizures, during which you lose awareness, almost entering a trance, and will forget what happened afterward.
Generalised seizures affect a much larger portion of the brain, and come in six types:
- Atonic seizures – Cause your muscles to relax instantly, potentially causing a fall.
- Tonic seizures – Cause your muscles to tighten instantly, and carries a similar risk.
- Absences – Last 10 to 20 seconds, during which you stare vacantly into space and lose awareness.
- Myoclonic seizures – Last barely a second and involve an involuntary jerking of the limbs or upper body.
- Clonic seizures – Include similar symptoms to those of myoclonic seizures, but may last several minutes and can cause unconsciousness.
- Tonic-clonic seizures – Are most associated with the ‘image’ of epilepsy. Sufferers become stiff and lose consciousness, their arms and legs twitching. They can last several minutes.
In order for a doctor to diagnose you with epilepsy they will need to take a detailed description of the types of seizures you have been having. As mentioned in this article, you will have needed to have had more than one seizure to be diagnosed.
It may be that your doctor refers you to a neurologist – a specialist in medical conditions which affect the brain and nerves. This specialist may also suggest having an electroencephalogram (EEG) or a brain scan to look for any problem in your brain.
An EEG is used to check for unusual electrical activity in the brain which can occur in people with epilepsy. A brain scan will spot problem in your brain that can cause the condition, such as an unusual growth, damage to the brain or scarring.
If these tests don’t show anything, it’s still possible that you have epilepsy, and you may be diagnosed just based on your symptoms.
Though there is no cure for epilepsy, there are a range of anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) that can help sufferers manage the condition. They alter the balance of chemicals in the brain responsible for carrying electrical impulses, which can prevent seizures. There is a degree of trial and error involved in determining which type of AED is best for each person, and in what dose.
Another type of treatment is known as vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). This involves a small electrical device being placed under the skin of your chest. This device is attached to a wire which connects to a nerve in your back called the vagus nerve. Electricity is then sent along the wire to the nerve. It is thought that VNS can help control seizures by changing the electrical signals in the brain.
A second procedure is known as deep brain stimulation (DBS). This is similar to VNS, however the device placed in the chest is connected to wires which go directly to the brain. Bursts of electricity sent along these wires can help prevent seizures by changing the electrical signals in the brain.
In very extreme cases, neurosurgeons can remove part of the brain to try and relieve epileptic symptoms.
Living with Epilepsy
Epilepsy can affect people in different ways, but there are some general things that you can do to help control their seizures can continue to live safely. Controlling your seizures as much as possible is essential as they can become very dangerous.
Alongside ensuring that you take your AEDs, you need to identify and avoid the the triggers of your seizures. Common triggers of seizures include:
- Drinking alcohol.
- Flashing lights.
- Waking up.
- Some medications and illegal drugs.
A good way of identifying these triggers is to keep a seizure diary. In here you should write down when you have a seizure and what you were doing beforehand. It may be that you can spot some form of pattern which can help identify a seizure trigger. This means you can take some steps to help avoid these triggers.
Staying safe should a seizure occur is equally as important, especially if you find it hard to control them. There are tips you can following around the home and whilst you’re outside which can help to not only save your life, but also those around you. At home you should:
- Have a shower instead of a bath – to avoid drowning.
- Don’t lock the bathroom door.
- Cover furniture edges or sharp corners.
- Install smoke detectors to let you know if food is burning. You can lose awareness following a seizure.
- Use guards on heaters and radiators so that you don’t fall directly onto them.
- Place saucepans on the back burners and with the handles turned away from the edge of the cooker.
Although you can still take part in sporting activities with epilepsy, it is advised that you don’t go swimming on your own, wear a helmet whilst cycling and horse riding and that you avoid using certain types of gym equipment.
Once you’ve had a seizure, you will need to stop driving and inform the Driving and Vehicle Authority (DVLA). It may be that your license is taken away until your seizures are under control. Those who have been seizure-free for a year can re-apply for their driving license.
Epilepsy is a neurological condition that results in seizures, though it is worth noting that not all seizures are epileptic seizures: certain heart conditions and diabetes can also cause them.”
Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy
On rare occasions, a person with epilepsy dies during or after a seizure for no obvious reason. This is known as sudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP). Although rare, it is important to be ware of the danger, as it may sometimes be preventable.
The main thing you can do in order to reduce your risk is to make sure your epilepsy is well controlled. This can be done by taking your medication and avoiding seizure triggers where possible. If you are concerned about the control of your condition you should contact your epilepsy specialist as soon as possible.
A charity called SUDEP Action can offer advice and support, as well as a helpline for people who’ve lost a loved one as a result of epilepsy.
Can I help somebody having a seizure?
In terms of a tonic-clonic seizure, here are some does and don’ts if you see somebody suffering:
- Protect them from injury (remove harmful objects from nearby).
- Cushion their head.
- Look for an epilepsy identity card or identity jewellery – it may give you information about their seizures and what to do.
- Time how long the jerking lasts.
- Aid breathing by gently placing them in the recovery position once the jerking has stopped.
- Stay with the them until they are fully recovered.
- Be calmly reassuring.
- Restrain their movements.
- Put anything in their mouth.
- Try to move them unless they are in danger.
- Give them anything to eat or drink until they are fully recovered.
- Attempt to bring them round.
You should call for an ambulance if; you know it is the person’s first seizure, the jerking continues for longer than five minutes, the personal has one tonic-clonic seizure after another without regaining consciousness in-between, they are injured during the seizure or if you believe they need medical attention.
If you have epilepsy then you qualify for VAT Exemption when you order a personal alarm system from Lifeline24. HMRC state that a product which has been “designed or adapted for a disability” qualifies for VAT exemption.
For a person to qualify they must meet certain criteria set by HMRC. These criteria state that the customer must have a long-term illness, a terminal illness or a disability in order to qualify.
Remember to always consult a medical professional if you are worried about your health or are planning to make lifestyle changes.