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Epilepsy: Debunking myths and identifying ways to help

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On Monday 12 February 2018, we focus on the start of National Epilepsy Week. Quite often this disorder and those suffering from it are misunderstood. ER24 would like to use this opportunity to highlight the facts over fiction and equip readers to quickly identify whether someone is suffering a seizure.

What is epilepsy?

“Epilepsy is a chronic, neurological disorder that causes interference with your brain’s electrical system. This change in electrical impulses may cause brief changes in movement (such as unprovoked or recurrent seizures), behaviour, feeling, or awareness,” explains Dr Robyn Holgate, ER24’s Chief Medical Officer.

She further explains that, “seizures, abnormal movements or behaviour due to unusual electrical activity in the brain, are symptoms of epilepsy. But not all people who appear to have seizures have epilepsy. Approximately 10% of the population will have seizures, and approximately 1% will be diagnosed with epilepsy.

What causes epilepsy?

According to Dr Holgate, there are many causes of epilepsy, most can be categorised according to the age of onset, or a cause may never be found. Some epilepsies are genetic.

Epilepsy has no identifiable cause in about half the people with the condition. In the other half, the condition may be traced to various factors, including:

  • Head trauma as a result of a car accident or other traumatic injury.
  • Brain conditions, such as brain tumours or strokes, can cause epilepsy. Stroke is a leading cause of epilepsy in adults older than age 35.
  • Infectious diseases, such as meningitis, AIDS and viral encephalitis, can cause epilepsy.
  • Prenatal injury. Before birth, babies are sensitive to brain damage that could be caused by several factors, such as an infection in the mother, poor nutrition or oxygen deficiencies. This brain damage can result in epilepsy or cerebral palsy.

Debunking the myths:

Leading up to Epilepsy week, ER24 challenged the public to vote in our two polls via social media. The polls consisted of two possible answers: one being a myth and one being the correct method.  Across Twitter and Facebook we had more than 1 713 answers.

Poll 1:

Correct answer: Turn person to side

Poll 2:

 

Correct Answer: Clear area for safety

There are many myths about epilepsy, here are but a few that Dr Holgate wishes to debunk:

You can swallow your tongue during a seizure: It is physically impossible to swallow your tongue. If left on your back, your tongue may obstruct your airway, but it’s not possible to swallow your tongue.

You should force something into somebody’s mouth having a seizure. Absolutely not. This could damage teeth, the patient’s jaw and gums. The correct first aid technique is to gently roll somebody onto their side and put something soft under their head (such as a pillow). You should also never restrain somebody having a seizure.

Epilepsy is contagious. You cannot catch epilepsy from another person.

Only kids get epilepsy. Epilepsy may affect people of any age, but in our older population the causes may be as a result of health conditions rather than genetic factors.

People with epilepsy should not be in jobs of responsibility. Epilepsy is a chronic medical problem, which can be managed with medication. When this condition is well-managed, those suffering from epilepsy can be active and valuable members of society. Some people may be able to identify what triggers their epilepsy. This may include lack of sleep, illness, stress, bright or flashing lights, caffeine or alcohol, and skipping meals. Where a trigger is identified these triggers should be avoided if possible.

How does a seizure look? Any signs to look out for? 

“Focal or partial seizures may not cause a loss of consciousness. The person may present with alterations to any of the five senses, dizziness, staring blankly, repetitive movements and twitching of limbs. Generalised seizures involve the whole brain and there are many different types. The type that usually require medical assistance are for tonic-clonic seizures or grand mal seizures. The symptoms include stiffening of the body, shaking, loss of bladder and bowel control, biting the tongue and loss of consciousness,” says Dr Holgate.

What to do when someone suffers a seizure?

If someone suffers a grand mal tonic-clonic seizure:

  • Ease the person to the floor.
  • Turn the person gently onto one side – this will help the person breathe.
  • Clear the area around the person of anything hard or sharp. This can prevent injury.
  • Put something soft and flat, like a folded jacket or a pillow, under his or her head.
  • Remove eyeglasses.
  • Loosen ties or anything around the neck that may make it hard to breathe.
  • Call for an ambulance (ER24 084 124) if this continues (usually longer than 5 minutes, you will need medical support).

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