How epilepsy awareness affects us all

Did you know that 87 people are diagnosed with epilepsy in the UK every day? That's one of the messages the charity Epilepsy Action are trying to get across in this year's National Epilepsy Week as part of the theme of 'Transforming Lives'.


Did you know that 87 people are diagnosed with epilepsy in the UK every day? That's one of the messages the charity Epilepsy Action are trying to get across in this year's National Epilepsy Week as part of the theme of 'Transforming Lives'. The prospect of knowing what to do if you encounter someone having a seizure is scary enough - but just imagine if you were the person suffering from it.

In fact, one in 30 people are diagnosed with epilepsy at some point in their lives - almost half a million people in the UK live with the condition. Epilepsy is caused by abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the brain which cause seizures which usually last from a few seconds to a few minutes. More people again have a single seizure, but a diagnosis of epilepsy is only made if you have more than one. Single seizures can be caused by a wide array of factors, including low blood sugarexcess alcohol, drugs or poisons, lack of oxygen to the brain or very high fever, especially in children.

When most people think of epilepsy, they tend to think of people losing consciousness and jerking uncontrollably. This is a generalised tonic-clonic seizure. These are the most common form of generalised seizure (in which the whole or most of your brain is affected) but there are many others. These include absence seizures, which usually affect only children and young people, and which used to be called 'petit mal'. In this kind of seizure, people will suddenly stop what they're doing and look completely blank. They don't fall over or jerk, and will usually come round within a few seconds without any knowledge of what has happened to them and carry on as if nothing had happened.

The other big group of seizures are partial seizures, in which the abnormal electrical activity is confined to one part of the brain. This will cause abnormal sensations in the part of the body controlled by that bit of the brain. In simple partial seizures there is no change in awareness of your surroundings, but in complex partial seizures you become less aware of what is going on around you and partly lose consciousness.

About 80% of people with epilepsy have their seizures well controlled with medication, which acts by damping down the bursts of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. People who have epilepsy with no apparent cause (such as trauma to the brain or a tumour) have a particularly good chance of having their symptoms controlled. However, it doesn't cure the condition and needs to be taken regularly in the long term. Side effects such as sleepiness are fairly common with many of these medications, but often wear off within a few weeks.

Having epilepsy doesn't just affect you when you're having a seizure. People whose epilepsy is not well controlled can be constantly worried that they might have a seizure at any time. They may limit everything they do to reduce the risk of being harmed or having a seizure in public; their self- confidence can be affected and they may become depressed. They may not be able to drive and can find themselves discriminated against at work.

Epilepsy Awareness Week isn't about people with epilepsy - it's about all of us. With one in 30 people affected, there's a good chance you work or socialise alongside someone who has epilepsy, even if you don't know it. If we can all take a few minutes to learn how to be prepared to help someone who suffers a seizure or to think about what they're going through, Epilepsy Week will have done its job.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.