Kelly was a good friend of a good friend of mine. We socialized fairly often, and she was very upfront about the fact she had epilepsy. On one occasion, she announced that she was going to have a seizure and did; on another day, she gave warning, but the seizure didn’t happen.
It was through Kelly that I learned a bit about the condition and what to do and not do when witnessing an episode. But before we get into that, let me turn to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes for an explanation of what epilepsy is:
“The epilepsies are a spectrum of brain disorders ranging from severe, life-threatening and disabling, to ones that are much more benign. In epilepsy, the normal pattern of neuronal activity becomes disturbed, causing strange sensations, emotions, and behavior or sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness.
“The epilepsies have many possible causes, and there are several types of seizures. Anything that disturbs the normal pattern of neuron activity— from illness to brain damage to abnormal brain development can lead to seizures. Epilepsy may develop because of an abnormality in brain wiring, an imbalance of nerve signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters, changes in important features of brain cells called channels, or some combination of these and other factors. Having a single seizure as the result of a high fever (called febrile seizure) or head injury does not necessarily mean that a person has epilepsy.
“Only when a person has had two or more seizures is he or she considered to have epilepsy. A measurement of electrical activity in the brain and brain scans such as magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography are common diagnostic tests for epilepsy.”
Got that? It can happen to anyone at any time, but most often, epilepsy affects young children and older adults. The Epilepsy Foundation estimates that one in twenty-six people in the U.S. will develop epilepsy, of which six out of ten of them have an unknown cause.
Mayo Clinic says that “symptoms vary depending on the type of seizure. In most cases, a person with epilepsy will tend to have the same type of seizure each time, so the symptoms will be similar from episode to episode.”
These episodes can be as benign as temporary confusion. Kelly would stare straight ahead, and her eyelids, arms, and legs would twitch. Her episodes would last just a minute or two. Others will lose consciousness or awareness and have psychic symptoms such as fear, anxiety, or déjà vu.
I won’t go into the many different types of seizures. You can look those up. What I want to talk about is what you should do if you witness someone having a seizure. With help from the Epilepsy Foundation, I found out that we should:
1. Stay with the person and start timing the seizure. Remain calm and check for a medical ID. Call 911 if the seizure continues for more than five minutes.
2. Keep the person safe. Move or guide away from harmful objects.
3. Turn the person onto their side if they are not awake and aware. This will help make sure the person doesn’t aspirate saliva. Don’t block the airway. You do know that it’s physically impossible to swallow your tongue, right? Put something soft under the head and loosen any tight clothing around the neck.
4. Do NOT put anything in their mouth. Don’t give water, pills, or food until the person is fully awake.
5. Do NOT restrain.
6. Stay with them until they are awake and alert after the seizure.
Call 911 if the person has repeated seizures; has difficulty breathing; has the seizure in water; is injured, pregnant or sick; doesn’t return to their usual state, or if it’s the first time they’ve experienced one.
Taking an anti-seizure medicine daily is the primary defense against seizures for many epilepsy sufferers. There are also “rescue medicines” for seizures that last longer than usual or when seizures occur at specific, predictable times.
More specialized care is advised when, after a year or two, a person still has seizures despite being medicated. These treatments can include neurostimulation devices, dietary therapy, and surgery. Your healthcare provider can give you more information.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at email@example.com.