Epilepsy: erase the stigma

by Ria Pal

Nearly 4,000 years ago, Babylonian texts described the earliest recorded cases of epilepsy. In fact, almost all the great ancient civilizations mentioned the disease. The Greek healer Hippocrates, considered by many to be the Father of Medicine, wrote extensively about an ancient neurosurgical operation to save patients from their convulsions. Throughout history, epilepsy has been a subject of fascination and fear. It was believed that people with epilepsy were either possessed by the devil or just “crazy.” Today, we have a better understanding of how to treat seizures and what causes seizures, but still, the stigma over epilepsy persists. For many patients, the social stigma creates a heavier burden than the seizures. In this short article, I invite you to learn more about seizures and join me in erasing the stigma of epilepsy.

First, what is epilepsy? Epilepsy is a group of brain disorders that cause recurrent and unprovoked seizures. Seizures can have many causes, including infections, trauma, and low blood sugar. Seizures in epilepsy can develop at any age, but they are more common in children and the elderly. What happens during seizures is very variable! For a person with epilepsy, seizures may come once a year and simply involve a staring spell. On the other hand, seizures may come several times a day and may consist of falling, convulsions, shaking and blackening. Seizures are more common than most people realize. Studies indicate that 8-10% of people will have a seizure before they turn 80, and 3% of people develop epilepsy. In other words, 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy.

Because it is so common, it is important that everyone has a basic understanding of seizures and epilepsy. The brain contains millions of neurons (nerve cells) that create and receive electrical impulses. The electrical impulses allow the neurons to communicate with each other. During a seizure, there is abnormal, excessive electrical activity in the brain. This can cause changes in consciousness, behavior and / or abnormal movements. This activity typically lasts only seconds to minutes. Seizures can be terrifying to watch, but patients rarely suffer damage after a seizure if they do not hit their head when they fall. Many seizures can be prevented with medication.

If you see someone who is having or just had a seizure, keep calm. If the seizure is more than 5 minutes or the person is pregnant, call 911 immediately. If they are in a seizure, gently guide them to the floor and try to move them on their side so they do not choke on vomit or saliva. Do not put anything in their mouth or push them down. After the seizure, try to stay with them while they rest and check for injuries. Do not give them anything to eat or drink until they are fully alert.

Throughout history, people with seizures and epilepsy have been socially isolated and misunderstood. Take every opportunity to educate yourself and others about these conditions so that together, we can erase the stigma.

Ria Pal is a medical student and aspiring pediatrician at the University of Rochester. She hopes to work in community health as an advocate for Spanish speaking patients. She is on the board of the school’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) who are committed to contribute educational articles relevant to the Latino community.