November: Epilepsy Awareness Month

By Barbara Gruszka

To understand epilepsy, a condition of the brain which causes seizures due to disturbances in the electrical activity of the brain, first knowing about the brain may come in handy.

Our brain is composed of individual cellular units called neurons, which connect through synapses and wire our bodies with the electrical and chemical signals they propagate so we can breathe, move, metabolize, and think. How can a single cell create a network of electrical and chemical activity that can control the entire human body? Research of the human brain and its neural pathways continues to provide us with information unlike no other.

When a neuron fires an electric signal, it propagates a message through the brain and spinal cord, allowing us to conduct a certain action, either voluntary or involuntary. When these signals are disrupted, the brain cannot properly propagate these messages, causing a seizure. There are three classifications of seizures: focal, generalized, and unknown onset. These classifications define whether the seizure affects both sides of the brain (generalized) or in a specific area or group of cells in the brain (focal). Along with these three categories, doctors classify seizures through their motor or non-motor symptoms, meaning how the body moves in response to the electrical disturbances.

A seizure is typically observed when a person loses consciousness and starts to shake uncontrollably. This can happen due to trauma in the brain following an accident or factors that trigger a seizure such as flashing bright lights or patterns, sleep deprivation, stress, certain medications, alcohol or drug use, and more. Epilepsy is diagnosed if a person experiences “two or more unprovoked seizures separated by at least 24 hours or after one seizure with a risk for more.”

Epilepsy awareness is crucial because the various treatments for seizures are typically trial-and-error, and some seizures do not respond to medication. For some, no amount of medication, surgery, devices, therapy, or clinical trials can help control the seizure. Also, doctors may have a difficult time recognizing what triggers a seizure in someone. There are cases of childhood epilepsy where the cause remains unknown, but the seizures eventually stop after a certain age. Epilepsy awareness allows for the continuation of funding for research and the development of life-changing treatments for epilepsy patients.

Most importantly, knowing how to help a person who is having a seizure may save their life. If the person has never experienced a seizure before, they may not know how to respond to their own emergency. Seizures are dangerous because they can occur at any time: one may be put in harm’s way if they lose consciousness and motor function. For instance, a victim could be walking, collapse, begin to shake violently, and hit their head on the ground, possibly causing irreversible trauma to the head. If you are in a situation where a person is having a seizure, protect the person from injury by moving the person to the floor and pushing away any objects that may cause further damage. It is also important to try to position the person on their side to avoid any choking due to liquid accumulating in the mouth. Lastly, if the seizure lasts for more than five minutes or if the person is pregnant, call emergency services immediately.

Epilepsy is a difficult condition to live with. Losing control of one’s body at any given moment is a frightening experience. People suffering from epilepsy learn how to deal with their seizures by trying to find and understand their triggers, avoiding them if possible. Some use service dogs trained to alert the person when a seizure is upcoming, allowing the person to make the necessarily adjustments to prepare themselves. However, these service dogs and treatments come with a very hefty cost, and are not always readily available. Donating to the Epilepsy Foundation (www.epilepsy.com) may help alleviate some of the costs of treatment and service.

 

 

Photo by Timur Bekur

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