The brain is a complex organ, hidden within its bony helmet. It controls everything we think and do.

When there is a disturbance to the functioning of the brain, such as in epilepsy, the brain’s performance can be affected.

A person may suffer a seizure as a one-off event, and sometimes up to several times a day. One seizure does not mean a person has epilepsy. In fact, up to 20 per cent of us experience one seizure, or fit, during our lifetime. Sometimes seizures can be confused with low blood sugar, fainting spells or panic attacks.

According to the World Health Organisation, epilepsy is diagnosed when someone has two or more unprovoked seizures. About 250,000 Australians are living with epilepsy.

When a seizure occurs, there is rapid and uncoordinated electrical firing in the brain. The person may experience stiffening and jerking of the arms and legs, and a loss of consciousness. If still awake, they may seem vague or stare with a fixed expression or have rolling eyes. Often a headache and overwhelming tiredness are involved, too.

If you are close to someone who lives with epilepsy, you may know the warning signs that a seizure is coming – temporary confusion – often described as a “fuzzy” feeling, a staring spell or the beginning of jerking movements of the arms and legs.

Types of epileptic seizures

  • Focal onset - seizure starts in one part of the brain and may spread to others
  • Generalised onset - seizure affects both sides of the brain and may cause loss of consciousness. They can be called:
    • Absence - a lapse in awareness, perhaps like daydreaming
    • Tonic-clonic - the body stiffens and then jerks
    • Myoclonic - sudden, single jerks for a second or two
    • Tonic - can occur during sleep or when awake and involves stiffening of arms or legs
    • Atonic - brief seizures with a sudden loss of muscle tone
    • Clonic - uncommon and causes jerking of various parts of the body
  • Unknown onset - when the seizure can’t be diagnosed as focal or generalised

Typically, seizures last for one to three minutes. If a tonic-clonic seizure lasts longer than five minutes, it requires medical attention, according to Epworth neurologist, Dr Andrew Evans.

An accurate diagnosis will help you manage your epilepsy and to ensure you are taking the correct medication.

Tips that may reduce the risk of epileptic seizure:

  • Have plenty of sleep each night - set a regular sleep schedule and stick to it
  • Practise stress management and relaxation techniques
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Take the medications prescribed by your doctor

If caring for an epileptic child, it’s worth remembering:

  • Night-time seizures can increase tiredness during the day and affect attention and learning
  • Day-time seizures affect alertness, memory and concentration too
  • Even a single seizure during the school day can cause a child to forget what they have just learned, or what happened before and after the fit
  • Children with poorly controlled or frequent seizures may miss a lot of school
  • Absence seizures can occur dozens of times a day and create gaps in learning

Helping someone with a seizure

By their very nature, seizures are unpredictable and people with epilepsy may not known one is about to happen. They mostly run their own course but there are a few things you can do to help to keep a person safe:

  • Protect their head from injury
  • Do not restrain the person in any way
  • Do not put anything in their mouth
  • Have a safety management plan including:
    • Emergency contacts
    • Seizure and medical history
    • Safety and supervision needs
    • Instructions about medication
    • Seizure management and first aid

Epilepsy Action Australia has some great animations that help children understand seizure first aid and one for adults, too.

21 January 2019