Understand Epilepsy and Prevent Seizures from Disrupting Your Life

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Epilepsy is widely misunderstood, but not uncommon. An estimated 3.4 million people in the United States have epilepsy. And even though it can fill you with uncertainty, with the right treatment and care, you can still live your best life.

What is Epilepsy?

The fourth most common brain disorder after migraines, strokes and Alzheimer's Disease, epilepsy is characterized by a tendency to have recurrent, spontaneous seizures. While most people think of epilepsy in terms of convulsive seizures, it’s actually a broad term used to describe any brain disorder that causes seizures. 

Genetics can play a role in the development of epilepsy, but can also be caused by stroke, head trauma, infectious diseases of the brain or brain abnormalities.

Since some epilepsies are age related, you can sometimes outgrow them. And, up to 70% of people with epilepsy can become seizure-free with medication.

Epilepsy affects people of every age, but it’s most likely to be diagnosed in childhood or during your senior years.

What are the Types of Epileptic Seizures?

There are two groups of seizures: generalized seizures, which affect both sides of the brain, and focal or partial seizures, located in just one area of the brain. And within each group of seizures, there are different types of seizures.

Focal Seizures

Focal seizures only happen in one part of the brain. That’s why they’re also called partial seizures. 

There are three types of focal seizures:

  • Complex focal seizures, which can make a person dazed or confused and unable to respond or talk for a few minutes. 
  • Secondary generalized seizures begin in one part of the brain and then spread to both sides of the brain. 
  • Simple focal seizures affect a small part of the brain and cause twitching or a change in taste or smell.

General Seizures

General seizures can come two forms:

  • Absence seizures (also known as petit mal seizures) cause rapid blinking or a few seconds of staring into space. 
  • Tonic-clonic seizures (also known as a grand mal seizures) can cause muscle jerks or spasms, crying out, losing consciousness or falling to the ground. 

What Triggers Seizures?

A seizure is an electrical disruption of brain activity. Specific events or circumstances — called seizure triggers — can increase your risk of a seizure. Learning to recognize them can help you lessen and even avoid seizures. Some seizure triggers include:

  • Fatigue
  • Hormonal changes 
  • Illness
  • Lack of sleep
  • Missed medication
  • Physical or emotional stress

What Should You Do When a Seizure Happens?

If you experience a tonic-clonic seizure or see someone having one, you might feel helpless because you cannot stop it. But someone witnessing a seizure can provide care, comfort and support by:

  • Documenting the seizure to share so the details can be shared with a doctor later
  • Keeping the person safe, by protecting their head and keeping them from injury
  • Making sure their mouth is empty
  • Monitoring breathing
  • Moving the person to a recovery position
  • Providing gentle reassurance
  • Staying at the person's side
  • Timing the seizure

When Should You Call an Ambulance for a Seizure?

Call 911 if there is an injury, if the seizure lasts longer than five minutes or if the person is having difficulty breathing or is non-responsive after the seizure. However:

  • DON'T attempt CPR
  • DON'T give the person water or food until they’re fully alert
  • DON'T hold the person down
  • DON'T put anything in the person's mouth
  • DON'T try to stop their movement

Preventing Epilepsy

Although the causes of someone's epilepsy are often unknown, there are some measures you can take to reduce the chances of you or a loved one developing it, including:

Getting Vaccinated

Immunizations lower the chances that you'll contract an infectious disease. This includes diseases that can infect the brain and lead to epilepsy. 

Lowering Your Chances of Heart Disease or Stroke

Eat well, exercise and don't smoke. These everyday steps can lower your chances of heart disease and stroke, lowering the risk of developing epilepsy later in life.

Maintaining Good Health During Pregnancy 

Work with your doctor to follow a prenatal care plan that keeps you and your baby healthy. 

Practicing Good Hygiene 

The most common cause of epilepsy in the world is an infection caused by a parasite. It is called cysticercosis, and it can be prevented with frequent hand washing and safe food preparation. 

Safeguarding Your Brain from Traumatic Injury 

Traumatic brain injuries can cause of epilepsy. To minimize the risk of a brain injury ride safely in cars, on motorcycles and on bikes. 

If a traumatic brain injury happens to your or a family member, get help quickly. The right treatment may help avoid epilepsy.

Diagnosing Epilepsy

Several conditions can be confused with epilepsy, making it difficult to diagnose. But the effective treatment of epileptic seizures requires an accurate diagnosis. Confirming you have epilepsy and knowing what kind you have is a critical first step.

Since seizures seldom happen in a doctor's office, you'll need to document what happens so you can share the details with your health care providers. They'll evaluate what you share and decide what kind of testing you need to confirm whether you have epilepsy and what type of epilepsy you have.

To make an epilepsy diagnosis, your doctor will order a combination of tests that can include:

  • Blood tests
  • CT or CAT scan 
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) (a brain wave test)
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
  • MRI scan 
  • Sleep testing
  • X-ray 

Many times the results of these tests will appear completely normal in people with epilepsy. This doesn't mean your seizures aren’t real or that epilepsy isn’t present. For this reason, it’s important for you to stay in close touch with your health care team and let them know if your seizures don't respond to treatment. 

Taking Care of Yourself When You Have Epilepsy

Recurring seizures can get in the way of life. Adopting self-care strategies that help you feel better, control your seizures and live a full and more active life, can help. 

At AdventHealth, we follow a whole-person approach to care and strive to provide you the support you need to feel well in body, mind and spirit. That includes opportunities for patient education and holistic practices. We can help you:

  • Avoid tobacco, alcohol and drugs
  • Follow a well-balanced diet 
  • Get 8 hours of sleep
  • Get safe and regular exercise
  • Get support for emotional problems
  • Help loved ones, help you
  • Keep to your seizure medication schedule
  • Learn about your condition
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Manage memory problems, other health conditions, medicines, supplements and stress
  • Track your seizures

Treating Your Epilepsy

Epilepsy episodes and causes are always specific to you. That's why AdventHealth focuses on giving you specialized attention. Your personalized epilepsy treatment plan may include:

  • Antiepileptic medications
  • Cognitive treatments
  • Ketogenic diet support
  • Surgery 
  • Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) device 

One of the most important aspects of your epilepsy treatment plan is the ongoing, long-term monitoring of your condition. At AdventHealth, this includes working with your doctor over time and repeated testing to make sure your treatment plan is right for you. We'll work with you towards your goal of seizure relief now and neurological wellness for life. Find out how.

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