About Epilepsy



The word EPILEPSY comes from the Greek word meaning ‘to be overwhelmed by surprise’ or ‘to have been seized’.

Epilepsy is normally identified by seizures. To have Epilepsy is to have a tendency to have recurring seizures. Anyone can develop Epilepsy regardless of age, race or social class. It tends to start in infancy or late adolescence and the possibility increases after the age of 60. In Ireland there are 40,000 individuals with Epilepsy, 16,000 are paediatric and 20,000 suffer from epilepsy related disorders e.g. learning capabilities and social skills.

Epilepsy is directly related to a malfunction of the brain. The brain is a complex of nerve cells which control the functions of the body. In simple terms when the functions of the nerves are disrupted (sometimes compared with an electrical storm) the body can become disorganised and a seizure may result. The type of seizure which occurs is dependent upon which part of the brain malfunctions. It can take the form of uncontrolled movement, loss of consciousness, a change in behaviour or a combination of any of these. The onset of Epilepsy can be attributed to unusual stimulation such as flickering lights, drugs or an injury. If the injury is severe enough such as infection, birth trauma, stroke, tumour or due to an accident, Epilepsy may occur as a result. Some people attribute the development Epilepsy to some minor event such as a blow to the head or emotional upset. Although this is unlikely, it may be that a family predisposition to seizures may play an important role. 1 in every 20 people will have a single seizure at sometime in their lives. It is also true to say that in at least 50% of cases no cause is identified.
It should be noted that Epilepsy is not just one condition. Also it is not easy to give an explanation as to why seizures begin, or why they continue. The Epilepsies, therefore, affect people in different ways.

It is the sudden loss of control which has led to the many misconceptions and prejudice associated with Epilepsy. Seizures are the symptoms of the disorder and not the disorder itself.
The Essential overriding aim of Epilepsy care is to stabilize the patient and allow them to improve their lifestyle and take an active role in society.

In most cases the treatment of Epilepsy is through medication. Over the past number of years new drugs have become available which allow people with Epilepsy to live virtually seizure free lives. However, as each individual drug is likely to be most effective in controlling certain types of Epilepsy, the accurate identification of the type of Epilepsy is important for the correct choice of drug. Other treatment options such as surgery or Vagal Nerve Stimulation may be considered depending on the type of Epilepsy and the ability to achieve seizure freedom through medication.

Epilepsy is often assumed to be a benign condition with low mortality risk. However, there is increased mortality among people with Epilepsy especially those with more complex forms and among young people. People with Epilepsy are more at risk of incurring accidental injuries and even death due to lack of safety precautions and many Epilepsy related deaths could be prevented.

Less easy to prevent is the phenomenon of Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP) which is non traumatic, often unwitnessed death in a person with Epilepsy who is young and otherwise healthy. As with other chronic conditions such as Asthma and Diabetes a small number of people with Epilepsy will die prematurely each year.

Very often a side effect of Epilepsy leads to a loss of the ability to carry out even the most basic functions of everyday living. This also leads to the level and type of education in which they are prepared to undertake or which is available to them. In other cases the ability and confidence to gain employment is also impaired.

In addition to the lack of vocational skills, Epilepsy sufferers frequently lack confidence in their social skills. This can be caused by restrictions on their integration into normal lifestyle. Such restrictions would include the frequency of seizures, driving restrictions, participation in sports and others. This lack of confidence can still manifest itself even if the individual has been stabilized. In addition there is a STIGMA around Epilepsy amongst the general public which leads to a reticence towards involving Epilepsy sufferers in social activities.

It is important, regardless of the age of the onset of Epilepsy, to avoid blaming everything on Epilepsy. Ordinary living involves both successes and failures and it is important to realise that ‘ordinary living’ should be the overall objective.