Epilepsy is the third most common neurological disorder, after stroke and Alzheimer’s, in the United States. Yet it is often presumed to be a rare disease. Those with epilepsy can often feel that, on top of living with seizures, misunderstanding “causes a stigma that makes life more difficult” and recount how, after suffering a seizure at work or school, they’ve experienced discrimination and social isolation.
Epilepsy affects some 2.7 million Americans (about 1 in 26) and some 50 million people around the world. In about 70 percent of cases of epilepsy, medication can help control seizures; in some cases, surgery can provide a “cure” by removing the source of seizures.
As November is Epilepsy Awareness Month, here are some other commonly held misconceptions about epilepsy.
1. People with epilepsy are mentally ill or possessed.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
The Ancient Greek medical writer Hippocrates called epilepsy the “sacred disease”; even today, some traditional cultures still see epilepsy as a kind of spirit possession. Epilepsy is now understood to be a chronic medical condition and an umbrella term for some 20 different seizure disorders. It is a disorder of the brain and it is not something you can catch; epilepsy is not contagious.
2. Someone having a seizure is in danger of swallowing their tongue.
They are not; it is impossible to swallow your tongue. Nothing, though, should ever go into a person’s mouth during a seizure as biting down on something at such a time could cause serious dental trauma, contrary to Hollywood depictions of epilepsy. Neither, by the way, does anyone foam at the mouth when having a seizure.
When someone is having a seizure, they are unconscious and not in any pain. They may feel discomfort afterwards due to a fall, muscle aches or a bitter tongue.
3. Epilepsy affects intelligence.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
People with epilepsy have the same level of intelligence as those without epilepsy. Frequent seizures may make learning more difficult and medications can have side effects such as excessive fatigue but epilepsy itself does not typically lower intelligence or affect people’s ability to think. (Just ask Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton and Ludwig van Beethoven; they’re just same noteworthy historical figures who had epilepsy).
4. Epilepsy is something you’re born with.
Anyone can get epilepsy at any time in their life. Some are born with epilepsy (meaning that it is genetic), but you can also develop it as a result of head trauma, a brain tumor or lesion and stroke. The cause of epilepsy isn’t known in 65 to 70 percent of cases.
5. Seizures happen all the time and involve convulsions.
Epilepsy affects each person differently. Seizures can occur frequently (even daily) for some individuals. Some people, thanks to medication, are able to manage their seizures while it’s more difficult for others.
There are actually some 40 different types of seizures, of which convulsions are only one. Seizures can involve a blank stare, an involuntary movement, altered consciousness, a change in sensation or convulsions.
6. Seizures can be predicted.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The onset of a seizure can’t yet be predicted. Some people have reported feeling a certain physical sensation prior to a seizure occurring. Some foods and sensations (flashing lights) have been thought to trigger seizures in some people.
More and more service dogs are being trained to detect the onset of a seizure. A seizure dog for a child can be trained to bark to alert family about a seizure happening. Dogs can also be trained to activate a pre-programmed device that sends out an alert.
7. People with epilepsy can’t have jobs.
8. A seizure is a medical emergency.
Epilepsy is not a benign disease and uncontrollable seizures that keep occurring can be a serious health risk. Nonetheless, emergency medical attention isn’t always required. Such attention should be sought under these circumstances, when
… a seizure lasts five minutes or longer or repeats one after another without the person regaining consciousness in-between; it is someone’s first seizure; the person is injured during the seizure (through a fall, for example); the seizure happens in water; or the person is pregnant or has diabetes.
Women with epilepsy can get pregnant and have healthy, normal babies. As there is an increase in the risk of birth defects for women with epilepsy, it’s crucial to work closely with a neurologist and obstetrician.
9. Only humans have epilepsy.
Epilepsy can occur in animals and has been identified in dogs and cats. Epilepsy in dogs is often inherited and may be higher in some breeds such as Belgian shepherds; it can be treated with medication (though this can lead to weight gain) and changes in diet and environment.
In cats, seizures are thought to be the result of previous damage to the brain. They can be treated with medication, but long term anticonvulsants can put unnecessary stress on a cat’s liver. Consultation with a veterinarian is certainly called for as is careful monitoring. With proper and attentive care, epilepsy is a condition that humans and animals can learn to live with.
Photo via JamesJam/Flickr; other photos from Thinkstock, unless otherwise noted.