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Key points about epilepsy

Epilepsy is a disorder which takes the form of recurring seizures. Seizures are sudden uncontrolled episodes of electrochemical activity in the brain. Brain cells normally communicate with each other in a coordinated way to control our conscious state and body movements. During a seizure this communication is temporarily disturbed and becomes uncoordinated.

There are many different types of seizures. Although they can sometimes look frightening, they rarely cause any damage to the brain.

Seizures may appear as any of the following:

  • confusion and disorientation
  • unusual, sudden body movements such as stiffening and jerking
  • a convulsion with total loss of consciousness
  • temporarily altered behaviour
  • staring and blinking
  • a frightened look or lack of response
  • a strange feeling or unusual taste
  • lip smacking and chewing
  • walking around without any purpose
  • fiddling with clothes/objects nearby
  • speaking in an unintelligible way

Seizures are different for each person.

Common seizure triggers include:

  • forgetting or failing to take prescribed medication;
  • illness with a high temperature;
  • diarrhoea and vomiting (which is known to prevent the absorption of any medication);
  • fatigue;
  • over-excitement;
  • hysteria;
  • stress;
  • fear;
  • loud noises and bright lights.
  • general anaesthetics can also bring on a seizure for some people.

Most epilepsy can be effectively treated.

Who gets epilepsy and how is it caused?

  • Epilepsy is very common
  • Epilepsy can occur unexpectedly
  • Epilepsy affects approximately 3% of Australians
  • Most first seizures are experienced before the age of 20
  • In 50% of cases, the cause is unknown. Some recognised causes are structural brain damage; brain damage at birth or after a stroke; or serious infection such as meningitis.
  • Childhood epilepsies include neo-natal seizures, infantile spasms, myoclonic seizures, febrile convulsions, absence seizures, tonic clonic seizures and partial seizures where the activity is not located in any one particular part of the brain.
  • Older people, in particular those over 65, experience the second highest incidence of first seizures. One common cause is stroke. Other possible causes are head injuries, serious infection, alcoholism, tumours and dementia. Many epilepsies in the elderly are still unclassified.
  • Epilepsy and intellectual disability. The possibility of epilepsy is more common in people who have an intellectual disability. Frequently, the cause of both the intellectual disability and the epilepsy is unknown.

How is epilepsy is diagnosed?

  • Physical examination, pathology, EEG, various scans, MRI imaging, video monitoring and clinical history may all form part of this process.
  • Doctors also take into account factors like age of onset, typical EEG pattern, seizure patterns and response to medication.

How can epilepsy be managed?

  • Take the appropriate medication as prescribed
  • Maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle
  • Maintain self-esteem and as normal a life as possible
  • Surgery for epilepsy is becoming more frequent. Medication is required for some time after surgery.
  • Attitudes of others, incorrect information and the person's own feelings of helplessness, guilt, frustration, resentment, embarrassment and anger are all very real.

"For many people with epilepsy, society's attitude is more devastating than the condition itself"
- Dr M. Brodie [REF 1]

Medication for epilepsy includes the following drugs which are called anti-epileptic drugs: (aed's)

The drugs must be taken exactly as prescribed. Dosage and regime is different for each person. People are required to take their medication 2-4 times daily in the form of syrup, tablets and/or capsules.

Most other commonly prescribed drugs can be taken quite safely with anti-epileptic drugs. All drugs have side effects. Some of the known side effects of certain aed's include fatigue, dizziness, irritability, double vision, nausea, rashes, tremors and gum swelling. Refer to our page on Medication.

SUDEP (Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy)

Sudden death may occur, however risks appear to be negligible for those whose epilepsy is well controlled.

Research is in place and there is a commitment to find any relevant information to explain this phenomenon.

Refer to our SUDEP kit for full details.

How can you help someone who is having a seizure?

  • Remain with the person having the seizure, to protect and reassure them.
  • If a major generalised tonic clonic seizure occurs (what used to be called a grand mal or convulsive seizure when there is stiffening, jerking and loss of consciousness), put the person on their side in the recovery position as soon as possible.
  • Do not restrain.
  • Note the time and length of the seizure.
  • Remove all dangerous objects.
  • Do not put anything in the person's mouth.
  • As consciousness returns, offer further reassurance
  • Get immediate help if the seizure continues for more than 5 minutes (earlier if you are unsure about the medical history and if it is possibly a first seizure).
  • If the person remains unconscious, get urgent medical assistance.

[REF 1]. Cognitive and Behavioural Effects of Epilepsy and AEDs, M J Brodie, 23rd International Epilepsy Congress, Prague 1999

EMAIL epilepsy@epilepsy.asn.au    818 Burke Rd, Camberwell Victoria  3124  Australia
PHONE (03) 9805 9111    TOLL FREE 1300 852 853    FAX (03) 9882 7159

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North East Valley Division General Practice, Victoria, Australia, Disclaimer 
Level 1, Pathology Building, Repatriation Campus, A&RMC, Heidelberg West VIC 3081. .. map
Phone: 03 9496 4333, Fax: 03 9496 4349,  Email: nevdgp@nevdgp.org.au
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Last modified: September 04, 2006