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10 Things Everyone Should Know About Epilepsy

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Meijer Gardens at the 2019 annual Grand Rapid’s Summer Stroll for Epilepsy. (Photo courtesy of the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan)

By Elizabeth Preston

Seizures have been recorded since the beginning of human history. Van Gogh, Beethoven, Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Newton, Michelangelo, Dickens, Harriet Tubman, Theodore Roosevelt, and Prince all had epilepsy.       

People in the past attributed it to gods or demon possession and caused those with the disease to be feared and isolated. Even when the medical community started to understand the central nervous systems, those with epilepsy suffered discrimination through the 1900s. Now in the 21st century, a lot of misconceptions and a lack of information surrounding epilepsy still persists. 

  • 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy in their lifetime: Around 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases globally. This includes 3.4 million people in the U.S. with epilepsy and 100,000 in Michigan. The number of Americans who have epilepsy is greater than the number who have multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy combined.
  • You probably know someone who has epilepsy: Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States after migraine, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. Many people keep it a secret because of the stigma.
  • Seizures are like a “lightning storm in your brain”: A seizure is a brief disturbance in the electrical activity of the brain that causes temporary changes in movement, awareness, feelings, behavior, or other bodily functions.
  • Not all seizures are alike: There are about 30 different types of seizures and over 60 different types of epilepsy.  Some cause the individual to fall and shake. Other types cause the person to stare blankly.
  • Once a seizure starts, you can’t stop it: Unlike a heart attack, you cannot intervene and stop a seizure from occurring. The most helpful thing you can do is to stay with the person, turn them on their side to keep the airway clear, cushion their head and keep the rest of their body from injury.  Do NOT restrain them and do NOT put anything in their mouth.
  • Seizures are not the only symptom of epilepsy: People who have epilepsy often suffer from other challenges such as fatigue, anxiety, depression, trouble concentrating, and mood changes. Those with epilepsy are protected against discrimination through the American Disability Act.
  • Most people who have epilepsy are NOT triggered by flashing lights: For only about 3% of people with epilepsy, exposure to flashing lights at certain intensities or to certain visual patterns can trigger seizures. This condition is known as photosensitive epilepsy and is more common in children and adolescents.
  • One-third of people with epilepsy cannot have their seizures controlled by medicine: In about half of epilepsy cases, there is no identifiable cause. Treatments are being sought around the world to control seizures. Surgery and electronic brain devices have been successful in certain types of epilepsy.
  • Each year, more than 1 out of 1,000 people with epilepsy die from SUDEP: Epilepsy can be fatal. SUDEP stands for Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. In cases of SUDEP, a person with epilepsy dies without warning, and no cause of death can be found.
  • Seizure First Aid is available free online: Anyone can access a 30-minute online training course for free! Seizure First Aid Ready educates the public on the Epilepsy Foundation of America’s basic procedures for responding to someone having a seizure. The on-demand course is presented in an interactive format with animations, videos, and activities to help everyone become Seizure First Aid ready.

For more information, visit the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan website.