According to Epilepsy Ontario, approximately 1 in 100 Canadians have epilepsy. The highest number of new cases are in seniors and young children. Epilepsy is a common brain disorder characterized by the recurrence of seizures and is the 3rd most common neurological disorder affecting older adults after stroke and dementia.
"Everyone who has epilepsy has seizures - but not everyone who has seizures has epilepsy."
What is a seizure?
A seizure happens when a burst of electrical activity causes a chain reaction of cells in the brain to overreact. In the brain, chemicals called neurotransmitters act as messengers to control the neurons (nerve cells in the brain). Some neurotransmitters work like green lights - they are the GO signals. Others work like red lights - they are the STOP signals. When these stop-and-go signals stay in balance, everything works normally.
But what happens if they are out of balance? When there are too many go signals and not enough stop signals, a burst of energy is created in the cell. The energized cell sends energy out to other cells in a chain reaction. This group of over-energized cells is what causes the seizure.
The location of the cells and the number of cells involved will determine how severe the seizure is and what symptoms the person will have. Seizures are sudden, uncontrolled electrical disturbances in the brain that can cause a wide range of symptoms. These symptoms can vary from person to person and depend on the area of the brain affected. Common symptoms include convulsions, temporary loss of consciousness, muscle spasms, and changes in behaviour or sensation.
What causes a seizure?
Many different types of problems with the brain can lead to a chemical imbalance that causes a seizure.
some individuals are born with seizures
seizures may develop after a head injury, brain tumour or stroke
heart disease, fevers, alcoholism, and the use of illegal drugs can lead to seizures
the seizure itself can actually cause injury to the brain, therefore leading to more seizures
epilepsy is usually diagnosed after a person has had at least two seizures that were not caused by some known condition.
Types of Seizures
There are several types of seizures, each with its distinct characteristics. Some of the most common types include:
1. Generalized Seizures: These seizures affect both sides of the brain and can cause loss of consciousness and convulsions. Examples of generalized seizures include tonic-clonic seizures (formerly known as grand mal seizures) and absence seizures.
2. Focal Seizures: Also known as partial seizures, these seizures occur in one specific area of the brain. Focal seizures can cause a variety of symptoms depending on the location of the affected brain region. These symptoms may include jerking movements, altered consciousness, or sensory changes.
3. Absence Seizures: Absence seizures are brief episodes of staring into space or daydreaming. They usually last for a few seconds and are more common in children.
What happens during a seizure?
Something triggers abnormal activity in the brain.
Many people experience an aura - or warning sign - shortly before a seizure begins.
At this point, the actual seizure activity begins. This may be barely noticeable - such as the twitching of a facial muscle. Or it may include full-body convulsions.
After the seizure has ended, most people need some time to recover.
In some cases, people experience reentry - meaning the seizure activity starts all over again.
While seizures cannot always be prevented, some strategies can help manage and reduce their frequency:
Medication: Antiepileptic drugs are often prescribed to control and prevent seizures. It is essential to follow the prescribed medication regimen and consult a healthcare professional regularly to adjust the dosage if necessary.
Lifestyle Modifications: Certain lifestyle changes can make a difference in managing seizures. This may include getting enough sleep, avoiding triggers (such as stress or flashing lights), and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine.
Seizure Response Plan: Individuals with seizures should have a seizure response plan in place. This plan outlines what to do when a seizure occurs and includes essential information for family members, friends, and caregivers.
Supporting Individuals with Seizures
Supporting individuals with seizures is crucial for their well-being and safety. Here are some ways to provide support:
Education and Awareness: Educate yourself and others about seizures to understand the condition better and reduce stigma. The more informed people are, the better equipped they will be to provide support and assistance.
Creating a Safe Environment: Removing any potential hazards or obstacles makes the environment safe for someone who experiences seizures. This may include padding sharp corners, ensuring easy access to emergency medication, and providing a comfortable space for recovery after a seizure.
Emotional Support: Seizures can be emotionally taxing for individuals. Offering emotional support and reassurance can significantly improve their overall well-being. Be patient, understanding, and empathetic.
What to do if someone is having a seizure?
If the person is experiencing a seizure for the first time, seek medical assistance immediately.
If possible, help the person lie down on the floor or flat surface and turn them onto one side. Loosen any clothing around the person's neck. Cushion the head with something soft like a pillow.
Do NOT put anything in the person's mouth.
Ensure the person has plenty of room - with no dangerous objects nearby that could cause injury.
Stay calm and remain with them throughout the seizure.
For those who have a history of seizures, watch the clock. If seizures last longer than 5 minutes, or a second seizure starts right after the one, call for immediate help. Otherwise, after the seizure, help the person to a comfortable resting position, then report to emergency services, family doctor and other medical personnel.
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