Frequently Asked Questions

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy or "a seizure disorder" is a neurological condition that affects the central nervous system. The fourth most common neurological disorder, epilepsy affects approximately 3 million Americans (1 in 26) of all ages and races. A person is said to have epilepsy when they have experienced two or more unprovoked seizures that are separated by at least 24 hours or one unprovoked seizure and a probability of further seizures. One seizure may not mean that epilepsy is present.

Many aspects of epilepsy are still a mystery, but it is known that seizures are caused by disturbances in the electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can be the result of a brain injury or damage, genetics, infectious diseases, and developmental disorders, but often occur without a known cause.

What Do Seizures Look Like?

Seizures can display differently in each person, but they generally fall under two types: primary generalized seizures and focal seizures (previously known as partial seizures). Primary generalized seizures involve both sides of the brain experiencing widespread electrical discharge. These seizures can occur in clusters and affect muscle control causing falling, jerking, or collapsing. The most dramatic primary generalized seizures are tonic-clonic seizures (previously known as grand mal seizures). These seizures usually last 1 to 3 minutes, result in loss of consciousness, loss of bladder control, body stiffening/shaking, biting of the tongue, and often require more time to recover.

Focal seizures are limited to single areas of the brain. These can be caused by brain injury such as stroke, tumor, and trauma, but often the cause is unknown. People having focal seizures may become nonresponsive, stare into space, experience a change in their senses, involuntary movement in limbs, repetitive movement, and may or may not lose consciousness or awareness.

Is There Treatment?

For approximately 70% of individuals with epilepsy, there are treatments that can stop or control seizures. Doctors work closely with individual patients to explore the appropriate medication(s) to prescribe each unique seizure disorder. These medications are typically taken daily and over a long period of time; recurrence and remission of epilepsy often occurs across a person's life span. Some seizure disorders are described as "drug resistant epilepsy" and medications do not effectively treat the condition. In these cases, brain surgery or stimulation, dietary therapy, vagus nerve therapy, and behavioral therapy may be successful treatment options; there are also research studies that explore new methods of seizure management and treatment. Unfortunately, for 30% of those with epilepsy, their seizures cannot be managed effectively by any of the currently available treatments. Many others experience side effects from their treatments that can impact their quality of life. Learn more about treatment.
In most cases, seizures end safely on their own, but sometimes more serious emergencies can arise. Learn more about SUDEP and other risks.

What is SUDEP? SUDEP and Other Risks

In most cases, seizures end safely on their own, but sometimes more serious emergencies can arise. During seizures, injuries can occur such as bruises, cuts, broken bones, concussions, and head injuries. Risk of death is also higher in those with epilepsy because of the potential for accidents to occur during seizures; drowning, for example, is far more common in those with seizure disorders.

Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP) occurs when someone dies unexpectedly without a known reason or seizure-related emergency. Rates of SUDEP are estimated at 1 in 1,000, however the risk increases in younger individuals (20-40 years of age). SUDEP is the leading cause of death in people whose seizures are not controlled.

The Epilepsy Foundation SUDEP Institute works to prevent SUDEP and support people confronting the fear and loss caused by it. Learn more about SUDEP. Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) funds research to find the causes of epilepsy and design therapies that treat the cause. They are the leader in Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP) research and have awarded 27 SUDEP-related grants, totaling more than $3 million, since 2004. Learn more at CURE.

Seizure First Aid

About 1 out of 10 people has had a seizure. That means seizures are common, and one day you might need to help someone during or after a seizure. Learn what you can do to keep that person safe until the seizure stops by itself.

First aid for generalized tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures

When most people think of a seizure, they think of a generalized tonic-clonic seizure, also called a grand mal seizure. In this type of seizure, the person may cry out, fall, shake or jerk, and become unaware of what's going on around them.
Here are things you can do to help someone who is having this type of seizure:

  • Turn the person gently onto one side. This will help the person breathe.
  • Clear the area around the person of anything hard or sharp. This can prevent injury.
  • Put something soft and flat, like a folded jacket, under his or her head.
  • Remove eyeglasses.
  • Loosen ties or anything around the neck that may make it hard to breathe.
  • Time the seizure. Call 911 if the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.

 

Call 911 if

  • The person has never had a seizure before.
  • The person has difficulty breathing or waking after the seizure.
  • The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • The person has another seizure soon after the first one.
  • The person is hurt during the seizure.
  • The seizure happens in water.
  • The person has a health condition like diabetes, heart disease, or is pregnant.
  • First aid for seizures involves keeping the person safe until the seizure stops by itself.

 

First aid for any type of seizure

There are many types of seizures. Most seizures end in a few minutes. These are general steps to help someone who is having any type seizure:

  • Stay with the person until the seizure ends and he or she is fully awake. After it ends, help the person sit in a safe place. Once they are alert and able to communicate, tell them what happened in very simple terms.
  • Comfort the person and speak calmly.
  • Check to see if the person is wearing or a medical bracelet or other emergency information.
  • Keep yourself and other people calm.
  • Offer to call a taxi or another person to make sure the person gets home safely.
  • Read about first aid for different types seizures: Epilepsy Foundation Seizure First Aid.

Knowing what NOT to do is important for keeping a person safe during or after a seizure. Never do any of the following things

  • Do not hold the person down or try to stop his or her movements.
  • Do not put anything in the person's mouth. This can injure teeth or the jaw. A person having a seizure cannot swallow his or her tongue.
  • Do not try to give mouth-to-mouth breaths (like CPR). People usually start breathing again on their own after a seizure.
  • Do not offer the person water or food until he or she is fully alert.