Epilepsy is one of the most common medical conditions in the UK, affecting over 600,000 people. That’s more than one in every 100. Epilepsy is a neurological condition that causes seizures. It is worth noting, however, that not all seizures are epileptic seizures: certain heart conditions and diabetes can also cause them.
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.
- Every day, 87 people receive an epilepsy diagnosis.
- Only 52% of people with epilepsy are seizure-free.
- With the correct treatment, an estimated 70% of people could be seizure-free.
- There are around 60 different kinds of seizures, some more severe than others.
- Epileptic seizures can be life-threatening. 1,000 people die in the UK every year because of their epilepsy.
Epilepsy can start at any age and there are different types of the condition. Some forms might only last for a limited amount of time. However, for the majority of people with epilepsy, it is a lifelong condition.
Causes of Epilepsy
There are several known causes of epilepsy. Some types of epilepsy are genetic, while others can begin after traumatic injuries or illnesses. Here are some of the main causes:
- A brain infection, such as meningitis.
- A stroke.
- A severe head injury.
- Problems during birth, causing the baby to receive less oxygen.
However, in more than half of epilepsy cases, doctors cannot pinpoint the cause. Experts and researchers are working hard to improve our understanding of this condition.
According to the NHS, around one in three people with epilepsy will have a family member with the condition. Scientists are currently studying the genes that might be involved in passing on epilepsy, 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. There are lots of different types of seizure. The effects on the person will differ depending on the part of the brain that the seizure affects.
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 could forget what happened afterwards.
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 carry 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 we have already mentioned, you will usually need to have had multiple seizures before you get a diagnosis.
Your doctor may refer 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 problems in your brain.
An EEG can check for unusual electrical activity in the brain, which can be an indicator of epilepsy. A brain scan will spot problems in your brain that can cause the condition, such as an unusual growth, damage to the brain or scarring.
However, even if these tests don’t show anything, it’s still possible that you have epilepsy. You may receive a diagnosis based solely on your symptoms.
Treatment for Epilepsy
Though there is currently no cure, there are a range of anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) that can help sufferers manage their condition. These alter the balance of chemicals responsible for carrying electrical impulses in the brain, in order to 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.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is another type of treatment. This involves placing a small electrical device 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 and reduce seizures by changing the electrical signals in the brain.
Some people also find that a ketogenic diet is effective in managing epilepsy.
If other treatment is not effective at managing your epilepsy, you could be a candidate for deep brain stimulation (DBS). This is similar to VNS, except the device placed in the chest is connected to wires which go directly to the brain. Electrical impulses sent along these wires can help prevent seizures by changing the electrical signals in the brain.
In 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 your seizures and continue to live safely. Controlling your seizures as much as possible is essential as they can become very dangerous.
Alongside taking all medication according to instructions, you should identify and avoid (where possible) 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. Whenever you have a seizure, you should write down what you were doing beforehand. Over time, you might be able to notice a pattern, which could help identify a seizure trigger. Once you understand your triggers, you can take steps to avoid them.
Seizure Safety Tips
For some people with epilepsy, seizures are impossible to avoid. It’s therefore very important to understand how to keep yourself safe during a seizure. Here are some general tips:
- Cover furniture edges or sharp corners to avoid injury in case of a fall.
- Don’t lock the bathroom door.
- Have a shower instead of a bath – to avoid the risk of drowning.
- 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, so you don’t knock them over during a seizure.
- Make sure you have a way to call for help when you need it.
Although you can still take part in sporting activities with epilepsy, experts advise that you wear a helmet whilst cycling or horse riding, don’t go swimming on your own, and avoid using certain types of gym equipment.
Once you’ve had a seizure, you will need to inform the Driving and Vehicle Authority (DVLA). You will need to stop driving (at least temporarily). The DVLA may ask you to surrender your licence (this means sending it back to them in the post). Those who have been seizure-free for a year can re-apply for their driving license.
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 aware of the danger, as SUDEP can sometimes be preventable. Those who suffer from tonic-clonic seizures are generally at the highest risk of SUDEP.
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 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?
Here are some tips for helping someone suffering from a tonic-clonic seizure:
- 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 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 in the following instances:
- You know it is the person’s first seizure.
- The jerking continues for longer than five minutes.
- The person has one tonic-clonic seizure after another without regaining consciousness in-between.
- They are injured during the seizure.
- You believe they need medical attention.
Personal Alarms for Epilepsy
For people with epilepsy, a personal alarm can be an important source of protection and peace of mind. At Lifeline24, we offer several different kinds of alarm, including a Fall Detector which could be particularly useful to those who have seizures.
When the alarm is activated (either by pressing the emergency button on the wearable pendant or base unit, or by the automatic fall detector) our 24/7 Response Team will answer the call within seconds. They will quickly assess the situation and send help directly to your home. This could mean calling your chosen emergency contacts to come and assist you and/or calling the emergency services to attend. This service saves lives and offers life-changing peace of mind to alarm users and their loved ones alike.
We also offer an advanced GPS Alarm, which supports independent living by allowing you to call for help wherever you are.
For more information on the personal alarm service, call us on 0800 999 0400 to speak to our expert advisors. Alternatively, you can fill in our Contact Us form and we will get in touch with you as soon as we can.
You can order your new Lifeline alarm online today and receive free next-day delivery.
If you have epilepsy, then you qualify for VAT Exemption when you order a personal alarm system from Lifeline24. This means you will not pay any VAT whatsoever on your new Lifeline alarm.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 23rd August 2021 to reflect current information.