University of Illinois Extension

Epilepsy

Epilepsy is one of the oldest known and most misunderstood of all disabilities. As far back as 4000 B.C., Hammurabi's Code designated "epileptics" as second-class citizens. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, diagnosed epilepsy as an affliction of the brain and central nervous system. Unfortunately, others did not share his beliefs and continued to think of epilepsy as a curse. Throughout history, people with epilepsy have endured barbaric treatments because of their disability.

In 1857, Bromide, the first drug known to be effective in decreasing the frequency and severity of seizures was found. This drug, as with most other drugs, had some serious side effects. It left the individual sleepy, sluggish, and with impaired memory. Society surmised that individuals with epilepsy had extremely low intelligence and therefore continued to shun them.

The next major development in treating epilepsy came in 1912 when Phenobarbital was used. Research continued, and in 1938 an anti-convulsant drug called Dilantin was found to be very effective in decreasing seizures. Dilantin continues to be one of the most widely used drugs to control epilepsy.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a seizure disorder. A seizure is a disturbance in the electrical patterns of the brain. Seizures can develop suddenly, often without warning, and may cease at any time.

Classification

There are several types of epileptic seizures. The medical field has developed an international classification system for epilepsy based on the location of the disturbance in the brain. Because most people are more familiar with the old classification system than with cross reference to the new one. The three most common types of epilepsy are:

Petit Mal. This is a type of staring spell. It is often mistaken for daydreaming. With episodes usually lasting less than a minute, the person may not even be aware of the seizure and does not require any assistance. The seizures may occur repeatedly, as many as 100 times a day in some cases. The international term for this type of seizure is "Absence."

Grand Mal. During a grand mal seizure, there may be violent shaking of the entire body accompanied by temporary loss of consciousness. The person may lose bowel and bladder control, have heavy or irregular breathing, and turn bluish in color. The seizure may be triggered by bright, flashing lights, loud noises, overexcitement, irregular sleep, poor nutrition, stress, or other changes in routine. The seizures may last from two to five minutes. They could occur as often as one or more times a day or as infrequently as once a year. The classification for this seizure is "Generalized Tonic/Clonic."

Psychomotor. This form of seizure results in inappropriate or purposeless behavior, with amnesia (loss of memory) regarding the episode. The person may wander out of the room and not remember where he or she came from or is going. The length of time will be about two to five minutes. The classification for this type of epilepsy is "Complex Partial Seizure."

Causes

Prenatal Causes -- such as radiation, poisonous substances, drugs, German measles early in pregnancy, or RH incompatibility.

Birth -- such as oxygen deprivation.

Childhood -- such as head injuries, measles, encephalitis, whooping cough, or meningitis.

Adults -- such as brain tumors, blood circulation problems, or head injuries.

Anyone at anytime may experience an injury or disease of the brain or central nervous system that may lead to epilepsy.

Help For Leaders

Most persons with epilepsy will be on medication to help reduce or eliminate seizures. However, if a seizure should occur, the following information can help you handle the situation.

  • Remain calm. Once a seizure has started, it cannot be stopped.

  • Lay the person on his or her side.

  • Do not place any objects into the mouth of a person with epilepsy.

  • Clear the area around the person of any objects that may hurt him or her. Allow the others present to help with this.

  • If others are present, tell the members of the group as much as you know about what is happening. By learning about epilepsy, members can become more sensitive to the problem and gain confidence in being able to help and to understand.

  • When the seizure is over, help the individual to a place where he or she can rest. Most persons will be tired from the extreme muscle activity and want to sleep.

  • Tell the person to return to the group when he or she is ready and feels like participating in the activity.

  • At the end of the session, notify the parents that their child had a seizure. Write down the time when it happened, the length of the seizure, and what the individual was doing when the seizure occurred. This information may help parents or a doctor in monitoring the seizures and in prescribing medication.

  • Medical attention is necessary when 1) the seizure lasts for more than 10 minutes or 2) there is a series of grand mal attacks, one following another in rapid succession without the victim regaining consciousness.

Resources

Epilepsy Foundation of America
4351 Garden City Dr.
Landover, MD 20785
(800) 332-1000
http://www.efa.org/