Was That a Seizure? 10 Surprising Facts About Epilepsy

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When you picture someone having a seizure, you probably think of what you've seen in the movies: someone being held down, thrashing and bucking in the throes of an epileptic fit. But what if that's not necessarily what a seizure looks like at all? And what if having a seizure doesn’t even mean you have epilepsy? Here are 10 surprising facts about epilepsy that will test your assumptions about this little-understood condition.

1. Anyone Can Have a Seizure
What many people don't realize is that anyone can have a seizure, and it doesn't mean you have epilepsy. In fact, doctors don't even begin to look at whether you have epilepsy until you've had two or more seizures. So how do you know you have epilepsy? Everyone is born with a seizure threshold, which may be high or low. For the majority of people, this threshold is high, making them less likely to suffer a seizure. However, for some people this threshold is much lower.

2. Epilepsy Is More Common Than Most People Think
Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States, after migraine, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. At any given point in time, about one percent of Americans have some form of epilepsy, and nearly four percent -- or 1 in 26 -- will develop epilepsy at some point in their lives. And 10 percent of Americans will have at least one seizure during their lifetime. Epilepsy is by no means most commonly a lifelong disease -- in fact, there are just as many people who develop epilepsy after the age of 65 as there are children born with it. The number of people in the U.S. with epilepsy tops the number that have multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy put together.

Types of Epilepsy, How They Look

3. There Are More Than 40 Types of Epilepsy
It might surprise you to know that more than 40 different types of epilepsy have been identified, and there are about 20 different types of seizures. A seizure is caused by a burst of electrical activity in the brain, which can cause a vast variety of symptoms. The "typical" seizure that most people picture, once called grand mal and know known as generalized tonic-clonic, causes muscle rigidity and spasms. But other types are different, and the signs may be subtle and easily confused with other conditions. Absence seizures (once called petit mal), for example, are characterized by silence and a blank stare. The person may seem momentarily "absent," hence the name. Drop seizures cause sufferers to crumple to the ground; myoclonic seizure is most often characterized by jerks and muscle movements, which may be confused with a tic disorder such as Tourette's syndrome. People with unusual types of seizures may need to explain their conditions to those around them -- including bosses and coworkers -- because otherwise it's easy for people to misunderstand what's happening.

4. Seizures Can Mimic Mental Illness
Did you know that shouting gibberish can be the primary sign of a seizure? So can undressing in public or repeating a word or phrase over and over. A type of seizure called a complex partial seizure can cause someone to make strange vocalizations and chewing motions, pick at their clothing, and make other movements that may seem bizarre to onlookers.

Seizure Triggers and Seizure Damage

5. Many Factors Can Trigger a Seizure
Whether your seizure threshold is naturally high or low, there are many things that can cause a seizure. Illness (particularly fever), stress, drinking alcohol, lack of sleep, drops in blood sugar or pressure, and irregular heartbeat can make you more susceptible to having a seizure. For approximately one in 20 epileptics, flickering or bright lights can trigger a seizure, known as photosensitive epilepsy. For women, hormonal fluctuations can raise susceptibility to seizures.

6. Seizures Don't Mean Brain Damage
This one works both ways: You might assume a seizure stems from damage or injury to the brain, or you might believe having a seizure leads to brain damage. However, neither is necessarily true. In some cases, grand mal (single tonic-clonic) seizures, the most common kind, can stem from severe head trauma. But there are lots of other causes. And head trauma does not cause seizures in most instances. Brain damage is most likely to occur from a grand mal seizure that lasts more than ten minutes.

Unexplained Epilepsy and Patterns

7. Most Epilepsy Is Unexplained
In about 30 percent of all epilepsy cases, doctors can identify an underlying cause. But in 70 percent of epilepsy cases, there is no known cause. These cases are referred to as idiopathic or cryptogenic epilepsy.

8. Seizures Follow a Pattern
A seizure is not one continuous event but follows a pattern, with a beginning, middle, and end. The first phase, called the aura, refers to telltale signs that precede a seizure, which may be dizziness and light-headedness or sensory signals such as sounds, smells, and tastes. Some people experience a feeling of déjà vu. The middle phase is the physical seizure itself, while the end phase, called the postictal phase, usually consists of confusion, disorientation, or memory loss. The postictal phase covers the entire period of brain recovery and can take up several hours. For most people with epilepsy, seizures follow a stereotypic pattern of symptoms and behaviors.

Controlling a Seizure and Long-Term Epilepsy

9. Epilepsy May Be Short-Lived
While most people think of epilepsy as a lifelong condition, only 25 percent of people who suffer seizures develop long-term, uncontrollable ones.

10. There's No Need to Control a Seizure
While you may have seen people in the movies holding down someone having a seizure, this is not the right thing to do. Instead, gently roll the person on one side, moving anything that could cause an injury. Support his head, and make sure he's breathing regularly. Most seizures will end without intervention within seconds or a few minutes. Neither should you put something into the mouth of someone having a seizure. This can have very serious consequences, including chipping teeth, cutting gums, and even breaking their jaw. And contrary to popular opinion, it is physically impossible for someone to swallow his own tongue, so there's no need to worry about this.


Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio