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Understanding Seizures

According to the Canadian Epilepsy Alliance, almost 260,000 Canadians have epilepsy. 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, there are chemicals called neurotransmitters that 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 number of cells involved will determine how severe the seizure is and what symptoms the person will have

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 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.

What happens during a seizure?

  1. Something triggers abnormal activity in the brain

  2. Many people experience an aura - or warning sign - shortly before a seizure begins

  3. 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.

  4. After the seizure has ended, most people need some time to recover.

  5. In some cases, people experience reentry - meaning the seizure activity starts all over again

What to do if someone is having a seizure?

If the person is experiencing a seizure for the first time, seek medical assistance right away.

  • 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

  • Make sure 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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