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What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder that affects the brain’s electrical activity. Nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain are responsible for all of the actions we perform—breathing, walking, sleeping, reaching for something, eating, etc. Electrical impulses travel from the neurons to the parts of the body that need to carry out a specific activity. For example, when you’re walking, neurons are sending electrical impulses to your legs.

All day long, your neurons are firing off these impulses, or “messages.” Epilepsy causes the neurons to become overloaded with too much electricity, which in turn leads them to send abnormal signals that result in seizures. Seizures vary from mild to severe and can cause convulsions, muscle spasms, strange sensations, odd behavior and loss of consciousness.

Two million Americans have epilepsy. There are a lot of possible causes. Illness, damage to the brain or abnormal brain development are three common ones. You’re considered to have epilepsy if you’ve had two or more seizures that are not brought on by a reversible cause. For example, extremely low blood pressure can cause a seizure, but that’s a temporary, reversible condition.

In short, epilepsy is a tendency to have recurrent seizures.

Some common myths about epilepsy
For centuries, there has been a stigma attached to having epilepsy, probably because it can be disturbing or frightening to witness someone having a seizure, especially a severe one. Before medical science identified what epilepsy was, people sometimes believed that individuals having seizures were possessed by some sort of evil power. 

Misperceptions about epilepsy continue even today, such as:

Myth: You can tell someone has epilepsy just by looking. People with epilepsy look no different than other people, and most are able to lead “normal lives.”

Myth: You have to make sure someone having a seizure doesn’t swallow their tongue. It’s impossible to swallow your tongue, even if you’re having a seizure. It’s dangerous to stick anything into the mouth of someone having a seizure.

Myth: Epilepsy is contagious. It’s not possible to pass epilepsy from one person to another.

Myth: People with epilepsy can’t work. It’s true that people who have very severe cases may have trouble working because they have seizures so often. But most people with epilepsy have the same kinds of talents and abilities as people in the general population.

Myth: People with epilepsy are mentally ill. Epilepsy is a physical problem, not a mental one.

Myth: Seizures always cause brain damage. Most seizures do not cause brain damage. Severe seizures, lasting more than 20 minutes, may cause damage, but many seizures are less serious than this.

What’s the outlook for people with epilepsy?
It can be challenging to have epilepsy. In some states, the risk of having a seizure prevents people with epilepsy from being able to drive. Some employers are reluctant to hire people with epilepsy, even though people who can control their condition with medication are able to do the same kinds of work as anybody else.

The important thing to remember is that except for when they’re having a seizure, people with epilepsy are just like everybody else.

O. Devinsky. Epilepsy Patient & Family Guide. F.A. Davis Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2002; The Epilepsy Foundation; The Epilepsy Institute; The National Association of Neurological Diseases and Stroke.

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