Spotlight on: Epilepsy

Epilepsy affects more than 2.5 million Americans, and yet much of the general public remains uneducated about this neurological disorder. Individuals with epilepsy have spontaneously recurring seizures or episodes in which there is sudden and abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Often this electrical activity results in uncontrollable body movements or the convulsions that most people recognize as a seizure, but sometimes this activity will manifest itself differently, such as through losing consciousness or staring spells.

Many people living with epilepsy will only experience one type of seizure throughout their lives, but others may experience many. It is the recurring nature of these seizures that lead to the diagnosis of epilepsy.

The Epilepsy Spectrum

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, there are three commonly recognised categories of epilepsy. Each type is based on the severity of the disorder and the resulting seizures. Uncomplicated epilepsy is controllable with medication and has little effect on an individual’s life otherwise. Compromised epilepsy can be controlled, but it often requires higher doses/stronger medication and results in more side effects. These factors often can infringe on an individual’s education, career or social life.

Finally, there are individuals whose lives are devastated by epilepsy. These people find that their seizures cannot be controlled and that their epilepsy results in slowed learning and impaired motor functions, among other things. Unfortunately these individuals often require lifelong care and are less likely to ever live independently.

Treating Epilepsy

Jennifer Stefanik, an intensive care unit nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass., is enthusiastic about the success of treatment options for patients diagnosed with epilepsy. “In about 70 percent of seizure patients, anti-seizure medication, or medication that effectively stops specific types of seizures from occurring, is the preferred mode of treatment,” she says.

Stefanik notes that there are other treatment options including: the use of a ketogenic diet (one that is high in fat but low in carbohydrates), vagus nerve stimulation (a procedure in which an electrode is implanted in the brain and occasional electrical stimulation reduces seizure activity) or surgery to reduce the part of the brain that is causing seizures. Though treatments will reduce the likelihood of seizures, Stefanik does advise that all individuals with epilepsy teach their friends and family what to do in the event of a seizure. This includes clearing the area, turning him/her to one side, not restraining the person or trying to insert anything into his or her mouth and calling for medical attention if the seizure persists for more than five minutes.

Living with Epilepsy

While treatments do abound, there is no cure for epilepsy, so those diagnosed with the disorder, and their families, will live with it for their entire lives. Caring for someone with epilepsy, even when it is being treated, can be stressful, but there are ways to alleviate the stress.

“There is the constant stress of making sure you don’t miss any clues about a possible seizure,” says Virginia Scanlon of Verona, N.J., the mother of a teenaged daughter with epilepsy. “And you must make sure that the school has safeguards in place and a plan of action in case a seizure does occur.”

Scanlon also finds the constant daily regiment of medication and worrying about the onset of a seizure to be a common source of stress for a family that includes an individual who has epilepsy. However, Stefanik advises all her patients to join local support groups or affiliates of the Epilepsy Foundation.

There is no denying that living with epilepsy will bring its own challenges, but the good news is that few of them are insurmountable. “With the right treatment, a person with epilepsy is fully capable of leading a full, healthy life,” Stefanik says. “While they should always be aware of the potential for seizure activity, there is no reason the person cannot attend school and extracurricular activities, go to college, enjoy a career, get married or have a family. The only additions to this are regular checkups with a doctor or neurologist to discuss any changes in the condition or treatment options.”