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Epilepsy

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Have you ever witnessed an epileptic seizure? It can be quite scary; indeed, seizures and epilepsy in general are medical conditions that still remain a bit of a mystery. You’ve come to the right place to learn more about them.

L’épilepsie

A few words about epilepsy

Eating, speaking, seeing, thinking, breathing, dancing, sleeping… all of these activities and many more need to be accomplished in a coordinated, logical way. To do so, a network of electrical and chemical signals between the brain’s neurons transmits messages to the right places so that everything can function properly. Seizures occur when this electrochemical network malfunctions, i.e. when there is excessive brain activity.

Epilepsy affects both adults and children, representing approximately 0.6% of Canadians. For half the affected children, seizures stop once they reach adulthood. In addition, it is rare for an epileptic seizure to cause death. However, it is vital to be extra careful when swimming or driving, for example, because if a seizure were to occur at those times, the consequences might be distressing. Unfortunately, people who suffer from epilepsy still have to face many a prejudice; accepting this diagnostic is thus an important aspect of the epileptic patient’s management process.

Epilepsy or seizures?

Contrary to what some might think, epilepsy is not always considered an illness as such, but rather a symptom of certain health problems. Here are some examples:

  • stroke;
  • head trauma;
  • brain tumour;
  • Alzheimer’s disease.

It is important to make a distinction between epilepsy and a seizure. For someone to be diagnosed with epilepsy, he or she must have had at least two separate seizures, at least 24 hours apart, of undetermined cause. Having one seizure due to a trigger factor does not mean a person has epilepsy. For example, it is not uncommon for children to have febrile seizures when they have high fever, but this does not make them predisposed for epilepsy. Also, some factors tend to provoke seizures in people who have been diagnosed with epilepsy:

  • extreme fatigue;
  • hormonal change (ex: menstruation);
  • abrupt changes in lighting (ex: stroboscope);
  • irregular meals;
  • stress;
  • fever;
  • intense emotions;
  • hyperventilation;
  • drinking alcohol;
  • forgetting to take antiepileptic medication.

To better control epileptic seizures, it is best to avoid these risk factors as much as possible.

Types of epilepsy

Hearing someone say they suffer from epilepsy can often make us think of dramatic seizures where a person is unconscious and shaken by sudden tremors or convulsions. However, it is a misconception that epilepsy is limited to this kind of manifestation, known as tonic-clonic seizure. Here are other types of epilepsy:

Table 1: Types of epilepsy

Type of epilepsy

Description of seizure

Simple partial seizure

  • Often an involuntary movement (ex: moving a finger or an eyelid, making sounds with the mouth), a change in vision or smell
  • No loss of consciousness

Complex partial seizure

 

  • Similar presentation to simple seizure
  • Loss of awareness of the environment for one to two minutes
  • Confusion after the seizure

Absence seizure

  • Staring into space
  • Loss of awareness of the environment for 30 seconds at most
  • Usually occurs in children

Myoclonic seizure

  • Brief spasm (one to two seconds) in upper body
  • No loss of consciousness

Atonic seizure

  • Momentary loss of muscle tone leading to falls
  • No loss of consciousness

A “partial” seizure occurs when only one part of the brain is affected by an imbalance in electrical activity. If the entire brain is affected, it is then known as a generalized seizure.

Epileptic seizures

As is shown in the above table, epilepsy presents itself in various ways; seizures vary significantly from one person to another. Before the seizure, some people experience what is called an “aura,” which is the warning sign of an imminent seizure. The aura can manifest itself, for example, as:

  • excitation;
  • hearing a sound;
  • strange taste in the mouth.

This way, because the person has been warned, it is possible for him or her to find a safe place to avoid risking his or her life when the seizure occurs.

When an epileptic person is having a seizure, you should not try to stop it. It usually ends shortly after. In addition, there are several myths about epilepsy that must be debunked: it is impossible to swallow your own tongue during a seizure, and it is not possible to interact with the person during the seizure, when he or she loses contact with reality.

After an epileptic seizure, especially after losing consciousness, the person may feel confused and disoriented for a while. This is because the brain’s neurons need to recover. The person may also experience memory loss or headaches.

Treatment

When a person is diagnosed with epilepsy, he or she must take medication to try and control seizures. Because each person is different, treatments vary from one to the other, and since there are several kinds of treatments, this allows for the use of several combinations of medications to reduce the frequency of seizures as much as possible.

In short, epilepsy is not limited to one single manifestation. Seizures can happen in significantly different ways, although they are more or less the same every time in the same person. Your pharmacist can be of invaluable help in managing your antiepileptic medication in order to increase its effectiveness and reduce its side effects. Having epilepsy does not at all prevent someone from living a normal life and being ambitious; just enjoy your favourite activities by paying extra attention to safety and you’ll be able to live in harmony with epilepsy.

Read more on the subject

L’épilepsie et son traitement

Treating epilepsy

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