AN ACQUAINTANCE falls to the ground, unconscious. His body stiffens, and his head and limbs begin to convulse. If you know that the person suffers from epilepsy, you can provide adequate assistance while waiting for help. Let us explore some basic facts about this often misunderstood disorder.
What is epilepsy? Epilepsy is a brain disorder that produces brief attacks called seizures. The entire seizure usually lasts less than five minutes. The situation described at the outset of this article is typical of what is called a grand mal seizure.
What causes seizures? Researchers believe that seizures occur when there is an abnormal surge of electrical activity between brain cells. Just why this happens remains unclear.
If I see someone with epilepsy having a grand mal seizure, what should I do? “Bystanders should let the attack run its course and not interfere with the patient, beyond checking to make sure the person is in no physical danger and can breathe,” says The Encyclopedia of the Brain and Brain Disorders. On the other hand, the book says: “An ambulance should be called if the seizure continues for more than five minutes, if another seizure immediately follows the first, or if the person does not regain consciousness a few minutes after the seizure ends.”
How can I help the patient while he is having a seizure? Place a soft object between his head and the floor, and move sharp objects away from his head. When the convulsions stop, turn the patient on his side as shown in the accompanying diagram.
What should I do after the patient awakens? First, assure him that everything is all right. Then help him to stand upright and guide him to a place where he can get needed rest. Most people are confused and sleepy after a seizure; others recover quickly and can continue what they were doing before the attack.
Do all epileptic seizures include convulsions? No. Some patients experience a moment of impaired awareness without even falling to the ground. This is called a petit mal seizure (or absence seizure), which is usually brief with no lingering aftereffects. Some people with epilepsy undergo prolonged petit mal seizures, lasting several minutes. In such a case, the patient may wander around the room, tug at his clothing, or otherwise behave strangely. After the seizure, he may feel light-headed.
What is it like to live with epilepsy? Understandably, many people with epilepsy contend with a nagging fear of when and where the next seizure will occur. To avoid embarrassment, they may tend to avoid social situations.
How can I give support to someone who has epilepsy? Encourage him not to bottle up his feelings. Be a good listener. Ask him what he would like you to do if he has a seizure. Since many people with epilepsy do not drive, perhaps you could offer a ride or run some errands for him.
Can seizures be reduced—or even prevented? Some factors increase the likelihood of a seizure, such as stress and lack of sleep. Experts therefore encourage epileptics to get proper rest and to exercise regularly in order to reduce stress. In some cases, medications have also been effective in preventing seizures.