Epilepsy and Seizures: What To Do

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There isn't just one type of seizure. There are many types, ranging from simple "absence seizures," which might simply look as if the person is staring into space -- and which even go unnoticed -- to "psychic" seizures, which affect people's memory, language, and emotions; to the common "tonic-clonic seizures," the kind most people connect with epilepsy and that involve stiffening and jerking throughout the body.

Doctors categorize the many types of seizures into two groups, depending on where the seizures originate.

Generalized seizures start in both sides of the brain. Tonic-clonic seizures are one of a number of different types of generalized seizures, and they alone account for 25 percent of all seizure activity in epilepsy.

Partial seizures, or focal seizures, originate in one area of the brain. Some partial seizures, such as absence seizures, can be mild; in others the person may become angry and combative or may have involuntary muscle contractions. The person may pluck at their clothes, swallow repeatedly, and wander around the room. Sometimes the person is not aware of his or her surroundings or actions. But even partial seizures can sometimes be more physically severe, involving muscle contractions and even falling.

The many different types of partial seizures, taken together, account for 60 percent of all seizure activity.

Your loved one might experience more than one type of seizure as part of a seizure pattern. However, according to Roger Porter, MD, of the Epilepsy Foundation, generally that person will stick to his particular seizure pattern -- a partial seizure followed by a tonic-clonic, for instance, for the duration of the disease.

Often seizures come without warning, so in case of a seizure, this is what you should do:

If Your Loved One Has a Tonic-Clonic Seizure:

  • Keep calm.
  • If you are home, clear the area of hard objects.
  • Don't hold the person down or try to stop his or her movements.
  • Do not put anything in the mouth to keep the person from biting his or her tongue. People do not choke on their tongues.
  • Loosen ties or very restrictive clothing, especially around the neck.
  • If he or she has fallen, put something soft under the head.
  • Try to turn him or her on one side to facilitate breathing.
  • Reassure other people nearby.
  • Time the seizure.
  • Stay with the person until it is over.

If Your Loved One Experiences a Partial Seizure:

  • Observe without being intrusive, especially if the person is angry or combative. In fact, experts advise not restricting the person in any way unless that person is in danger.
  • Carefully guide the person from danger in the form of sharp objects or moving vehicles.
  • Stay with the person until recovery is complete.
  • If the seizure involves falling or muscle contractions, clear the area of sharp objects and obstructions.
  • Be calm and reassuring.

In most cases, the seizures resolve themselves and end without incident. However, call an ambulance if:

  • It is the person's first seizure.
  • The seizure continues for more than five minutes.
  • One tonic-clonic seizure follows another for a long period of time.
  • The person is injured or diabetic or needs other medical attention.

You are an important witness to the type of seizure your loved one is having, and you can be vital in the diagnosis of his or her disorder. So observe carefully, and write up notes immediately afterward to help you remember the sequence of events.

Prepare for Possible Seizures:

You can help make your home safer in case of a possible seizure. Follow these tips:

  • Get rid of clutter! Everyone needs room to maneuver in case of accidents.
  • Seizure-proof your home: Cushion the edges of furniture and put down thick carpeting to guard against injuries from falling.
  • To prevent accidents with knives, don't let your loved one with epilepsy cook alone.
  • Use shatterproof glass wherever necessary.
  • Never let your loved one swim alone.
  • If your spouse is resistant to treatment or safety measures, ask your neurologist to help.

Patricia Wadsley

Pat Wadsley is a contributing writer for Caring. See full bio