What is Epilepsy?

November is National Epilepsy Awareness month, dedicated to educating the public on epilepsy, the fourth most common neurological disorder. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy affects 3.4 million people in the United States are affected by epilepsy and 1 in 26 people in the U.S. will develop the condition at some point in their lifetime. 

We sat down with Director of the DENT Epilepsy Center, Dr. Marc Frost, who cleared up common misconceptions surrounding the disorder. 

1. What is epilepsy?

“Epilepsy means that a person has recurrent seizures,” said Dr. Frost. “The type of epilepsy depends on the type of seizures the person has.”

The terms grand mal and petit mal are often misused to describe types of epilepsy. Those terms are simply a description of the seizure. A grand mal seizure occurs when a  person convulses or shakes. A petit mal describes a seizure where the person does not convulse.

2. What is a seizure?

“A seizure is the physical response to an abnormal electrical discharge in the brain,” said Dr. Frost

3. Are there different types of seizures?

“The type of seizure depends on where in the brain the abnormal discharge occurs,” said Dr. Frost. “If it happens where movement comes, the person will have abnormal movements in that part of their body, or a motor seizure. If it happens where sensation comes from, the person will have an usual sensation in that part of the body, also known as a sensory seizure. If the discharge stays in that spot, a person may just have a partial seizure. If that discharge spreads, a person may get confused and act strangely, known as a complex partial seizure. If it spreads to the rest of the brain, the person may have a full body convulsion, or secondary generalization.”

4. Who can be affected by epilepsy?

“Anyone at any age can have seizures and the causes of the seizures may be different at different ages. About 10% of adults will have single seizure. About 10% of those people (1% of the population) will go on to have recurrent seizures, or epilepsy,” said Dr. Frost. 

5. Is epilepsy genetic?

“There are some types of epilepsy that run in families and have a genetic component to them. However, the majority of epilepsy does not run in families,” said Dr. Frost.

6. What should you do if you see someone having a seizure?

“Let the seizure happen,” said Dr. Frost.  “Do not restrain the person or try to hold them down, they are more likely to be injured that way. Try to get the person on the ground and in a safe location. Lose any tight clothing and move any heavy objects away from them. Make sure to turn them on their side, they may vomit and you don’t want them to inhale or they will choke.”

Dr. Frost also stressed to remember to NEVER put anything in someone’s mouth during a seizure. “It is not possible to swallow your tongue, it’s attached to the bottom of your mouth. The person may bite their tongue, but that will heal. Objects put into someone’s mouth can break teeth, be swallowed or choked on, and fingers that are put on someone’s mouth can be bitten off.”

“People may hold their breath or stop breathing during seizure even to the point they start to turn blue. This does not mean that you must do CPR on them. They will start breathing once the seizure is over, so just watch them closely to make sure they do. When the person starts waking up, they will be confused and may get angry or agitated, talk softly to calm them down and guide them to a safe place. Do not try to restrain them, or they may just get more confused.”

“Always, always call 911,” added Dr. Frost.