Child experiencing an epileptic seizure is cared for by a caregiver

Top 5 Myths About Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a seizure disorder that affects 3.4 million people in the U.S. making it one of the most common neurological disorders. However, the chronic disorder is often widely misunderstood, and the resulting challenges are often worse than the seizure disorder itself.

Epilepsy is diagnosed when a person has two unprovoked seizures that weren’t caused by a known medical condition. In some cases, epileptic seizures result from a brain injury or a family history – but for six out of 10 people with epilepsy, the cause is unknown.

The severity and frequency of seizures and cause of epilepsy varies from one person to another.

Epilepsy can be passed on from one generation to the next, though there is a low risk of this happening because typically epilepsy involves not just one gene, but a combination of several genetic defects.

For many people with epilepsy, their condition can be successfully treated with medication and diet – but treatment doesn’t work for everyone.

Here are some common myths about epilepsy.

MYTH #1: People with epilepsy are mentally ill.

FACT: Epilepsy is not a mental illness. It’s a neurological condition that affects the nervous system. The term covers many different types of seizures and epileptic disorders. Epilepsy is usually diagnosed after a person has had at least two seizures. Seizures are caused when the electrical activity between neurons in the brain is disturbed.

Medications make it possible for nearly 70% of patients with epileptic seizures to minimize, control and in some cases eliminate their seizures, allowing them to drive and continue to hold steady jobs.

MYTH #2: It hurts to have a seizure.

FACT: During a seizure, a person is unconscious and isn’t in pain. However, after a seizure a person may experience pain or discomfort if they have fallen down or accidentally bit their tongue, and their muscles may ache.

MYTH #3: Epilepsy mostly affects children.

FACT: Epilepsy affects people of all ages – and people over the age of 65 experience seizures for the first time almost as often as children do.

New cases of epilepsy are most commonly diagnosed in children, especially when they are under the age of one. As people age – especially after the age of 55 – the rate of epilepsy diagnosis begins to increase as strokes, brain tumors and Alzheimer’s disease can cause epilepsy.

MYTH #4: Epilepsy is rare.

FACT: Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder and affects people of all ages.

There are more than twice as many people with epilepsy in the U.S. than there are people with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis combined.

MYTH #5: I can’t help someone having a seizure.

FACT: There are ways to help someone having a seizure without interfering or causing them harm.

There are many types of seizures. Generally, you can help someone having a seizure by staying with them until they are awake, alert and able to communicate. Tell the person what happened calmly. Offer to help them get home safely by calling them a ride.

If someone is having a grand mal seizure – in which a person may shake, jerk, cry out or fall down – they are unaware of what is going on around them. It’s important to help them by easing them onto the floor and turning them onto their side to help them breath.

Remove any objects from the area around them on the floor to prevent the person from becoming injured. Put something soft underneath their head and remove their glasses. Loosen their tie or shirt collar that may make it hard for them to breathe.

Don’t hold the person down who is having the seizure, and do not put anything in their mouths.

Time the length of the seizure. While most seizures end within seconds to minutes, call 911 if the seizure lasts longer than five minutes. If the person is having difficulty breathing, is injured, pregnant, sick, seizes under water, seizes repeatedly or is not returning to their usual state, call 911 at once.

This article is the sixth in a year-long series explaining how to manage chronic conditions that can be costly for families and the health care system. For more information about the series, click here.

This content has been reviewed and approved by Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

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Photo credit: Martinbowra

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