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Do’s and Don'ts of Seizures

Plus, 6 Things to Know About Epilepsy

Epilepsy, also called seizure disorder, is a disease of the brain that causes recurrent, unprovoked seizures. Epilepsy disrupts the brain’s normal electrical functions with abnormal bursts of electrical energy.

Although epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disease, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose. Epilepsy can be caused by a variety of factors, from genetics to structural changes in the brain. Your care team will work with you to determine the cause and best treatment options.

Whether you or a loved one has epilepsy, here are six things you should know.

1. Epilepsy affects people of all ages.

Epilepsy and seizures can develop at any point in someone’s lifetime. In fact, one in 26 people will develop epilepsy. New cases are most common with younger children, particularly in the first year of life. However, cases also increase after age 55, as individuals develop strokes, brain tumors and Alzheimer’s disease.

2. Seizures are different in everyone.

Each person’s seizure is different. Some can last a few seconds while others can last minutes. It’s important to know that some seizures will have other symptoms, such as numbness, impaired speech and sudden confusion.

Although every seizure is different, there are two main types, defined by the location of impact in the brain:

  • A partial (focal) seizure occurs in a limited area of the brain. This type is responsible for approximately 60 percent of seizures. The person having the seizure will not remember it. They may appear to be twitching their arms. Other symptoms can include tingling, numbness, unusual head movements, flushed face or nausea.
  • A generalized seizure affects both hemispheres of the brain at once. The generalized tonic-clonic seizure, also known as a grand mal seizure, is part of this group. In this type of seizure, the person will undergo three stages. First, the person will become unresponsive. They will enter a tonic phase, which results in stiffened limbs. The clonic phase results in jerking limbs. Eventually, the jerking will stop and the person will regain consciousness. Full recovery after this type of seizure can take minutes to hours.

In addition to grand mal seizures, generalized seizures also include absence (or petit mal) seizures, the most common seizure in children under 14. In these seizures, the person may become unresponsive and appear to be staring ahead. Their eyes may even roll into the back of their head. These types of seizures only last a few seconds. They may also be accompanied by chewing movements or excessive blinking.

If your loved one exhibits any signs of seizure, record as much information as you can.

3. It’s important to know how to provide first aid to someone experiencing a seizure.

Some seizures are more dangerous than others. While there isn’t much you can do during a seizure to stop it, you can help protect the individual and provide assistance. Nineteen out of 20 seizures stop by themselves within two to three minutes, although there can be a prolonged period of confusion afterwards. For seizures that last longer than five minutes, a call for an ambulance should be placed.

First, remember to remain calm. If appropriate, lay the individual on their side or cushion their head with a pillow. Once they are protected, call for help and remain with them until they recover. During the seizure, you should never put anything in the person’s mouth. This could cause serious injury. Here are some other things to be mindful of during a seizure.

Things to DO:

  • Do call for emergency assistance when needed.
  • Do safely cushion the person’s head.
  • Do protect the person from any nearby objects.
  • Do time the length of the seizure.
  • Do stay with the person until they recover.

Things you should NOT DO:

  • Don’t put anything in the person’s mouth.
  • Don’t try to move the person.
  • Don’t try to restrain the person.

4. Women with epilepsy can give birth to healthy babies.

Women with epilepsy can have perfectly healthy pregnancies. If possible, plan your pregnancy so you know the cause of your seizures and safest seizure medication to treat them during a pregnancy. Work with your care team before, during and after your pregnancy. Continue taking your medication as prescribed until you consult with your physician. Be sure to discuss all seizure medications with your care team to determine the best care for you. You will also want to be mindful of avoiding any triggers, such as sleep deprivation, certain foods or stress.

5. Medication can control epilepsy and allow people to live full lives.

Epilepsy is common! More than 3 million people in the United States have epilepsy. With the proper medication and treatment, people with epilepsy can have reduced symptoms, and live full and active lives. A multidisciplinary approach, like the one at Northwestern Medicine Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, can help you navigate your disease and maximize quality of life.

6. If medication is not effective, minimally invasive surgery may be an option.

For patients who cannot be controlled with medication, surgery is usually the best chance to stop the seizures in the right candidates. Roughly 20 percent of patients who previously were not considered candidates for surgery may now be helped through minimally invasive techniques. Stereo EEG can pinpoint the onset of the seizures, and laser ablation may be able to destroy the small brain part causing the seizures without requiring major surgery. Another promising advancement in epilepsy care is the use of a responsive neurostimulator (RNS), which acts like a cardiac pacemaker, but in the brain. The RNS is attached to the brain tissue where seizures originate, and when it detects an abnormal electrical impulse leading up to a seizure, it provides a pulse of electricity that can prevent the patient from ultimately having a seizure.