About Epilepsy

Causes, Seizure Types and Treatments

Epilepsy is something I have. It is not who I am...

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition of the central nervous system, characterized by recurrent seizures. The term epilepsy covers a wide variety of disturbances in consciousness, ranging from mild sensations or interruptions in normal thought, feeling or behavior, to convulsive seizures. It is estimated that 1 to 2% of the population has epilepsy. In Calgary, this is as many as 24,000 people – enough to fill the Saddledome and then some!

Anyone of any age, race, or background can develop epilepsy, although most cases are diagnosed early in life. In addition, as the baby boomers grow older, more seniors will be affected by epilepsy as a result of strokes, tumors and other conditions associated with aging.

Epilepsy is not a disease, it is not contagious, nor is it a form of mental illness or impaired development. Epilepsy generally does not affect a person’s intelligence, creativity, or ability. In fact, history records the names of many famous individuals who reportedly had epilepsy. They include: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Agatha Christie, Joan of Arc, Charles Dickens, Alfred Nobel, Napoleon Bonaparte among others.

In referring to a person who has epilepsy, it is important not to label that person. A person is always a person first, with likes, dislikes, talents and abilities, and above all, feelings. There is no such thing as an epileptic! There are however, some people who happen to have epilepsy.
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What Causes Epilepsy?

In many cases, a specific cause for epilepsy cannot be found, but known causes include: head injuries, pre-birth trauma, chemical imbalances, certain infections of the brain, such as encephalitis and meningitis, strokes, and brain tumors. Epilepsy is not generally inherited, although if both parents have a strong family history of epilepsy, the chances that their children will inherit a tendency to have seizures is increased.
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Seizure Types

Generalized seizures are seizures that affect the entire brain. These include:
TONIC CLONIC (formerly called Grand Mal)
  • A sudden cry, fall or slump, and loss of consciousness.
  • Stiffening of the body followed by convulsions of the entire body as the muscles alternately contract and relax.
  • As air is forced out of the body and through the mouth saliva may develop at corners of the mouth and it may be tinged with blood if the tongue has been bitten.
  • Breathing may be shallow or temporarily stop and may cause the skin to become bluish. As breathing resumes it may appear labored or sound as if the person is choking.
  • Involuntary muscle contractions may also result in loss of bladder or bowel control.
  • Usually lasts less than 5 minutes,
  • Muscle spasms slowly subside.
  • Consciousness slowly returns.
  • During recovery period the person will be tired and disoriented and may not be able to communicate. The person frequently will have incomplete or no memory of the seizure and even sometimes of the events prior to the seizure. The person may be easily upset or frightened during this period. The person may need to rest or sleep after the seizure.
First Aid for Tonic Clonic Seizures
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ABSENCE (formerly called Petit Mal)
  • Occurs more frequently in children.
  • Sudden brief loss of consciousness lasting 2-10 seconds
  • Person does not fall down.
  • Blank stare or eyes may blink and may be slight muscle movements around the mouth—may be misinterpreted as daydreaming. No recovery period, person is able to resume full activities immediately but will have no memory of what occurred during the seizure.
First Aid for Absence Seizures

Back to Top Partial seizures are seizures that affect only part of the brain. These include:
  • Very brief, usually no longer than 10 – 15 seconds.
  • No loss of consciousness or awareness.
  • May be either sensory or motor.
  • A change in any of the senses (vision, hearing, smell, touch, or taste) or perception—i.e. room suddenly appears to elongate, sound of a bell, smell of burnt toast, a tingling in one area, sour taste, or an unexplained emotion.
  • Change in motor activity or movement, usually isolated to one group of muscles—i.e. jerking of a limb
  • No recovery period.
First Aid for Simple Partial Seizures
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  • 2 – 4 minutes, occasionally longer.
  • Loss of awareness of surroundings.
  • May start with blank stare and chewing movements or twitching movements of the face.
  • Communication may be entirely blocked or may understand spoken word and be unable to respond.
  • May mumble or repeat a phrase.
  • Actions or movements are disorganized or purposeless; may make repeated movements with part of body or pick at clothing.
  • May wander without regard to location or obstacles.
  • Less frequently behavior may involve screaming, crying, moaning, running, fear, laughing, disrobing, loss of bladder control, abusive language, and spitting. The common characteristics are that the behaviors lack control and are not directed.
  • Seizure is followed by a recovery period of up to 30 minutes which is characterized by confusion and slow return to complete awareness.
First Aid for Focal Aware Seizures
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For the majority of people, seizures can be controlled by anti-convulsant medication(s). In fact, medication helps 50% of those diagnosed with epilepsy achieve complete control of their seizures. Thirty per cent (30%) achieve good control with medication(s), experiencing only occasional seizures. In some cases, it may be more difficult to achieve total or partial control of the seizures, and these individuals may decide to look at surgical and other health alternatives.
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Enhancing Well-Being

There is much that can be done to minimize the negative impact that epilepsy may have, while maintaining or enhancing an overall sense of well-being. For example, a balanced diet, adequate sleep and exercise, and avoiding excessive intake of alcohol are all steps a person can take to work towards optimal health and well-being.

Be aware that stress can trigger seizures, and as much possible, try to reduce or eliminate stressors that may trigger your seizures. If you are uncertain of your stressors, keeping a daily journal recording of your activities, events, thoughts, feelings, habits, etc., may help you begin to identify them.

Taking Control: Wellness Skills Development is a program available through the EAC, which may be of assistance in helping identify your stressors and triggers, and increasing your overall sense of wellness. Learn more. Back to Top