By Suzette LaRoche, MD
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, about 3 million people in the U.S. are living with epilepsy and for the majority of those people, the cause of the epilepsy is unknown. Even though epilepsy is one of the oldest medical conditions in the world, there’s a lot we don’t know about it, which has led to mystery and misunderstandings. It’s time to set the record straight:
Myth 1: Epilepsy is a form of mental illness.
Truth: Epilepsy is not a mental illness, even though historically it was thought to be. Epileptic seizures are caused by abnormal electrical firing of brain cells which cause sudden movements and abnormal behaviors.
Myth 2: A person with epilepsy can control whether or not they have seizures.
Truth: Although medications can greatly reduce seizures, people with epilepsy cannot control or predict when and where a seizure may occur. This can create a lot of anxiety for people and their families which epilepsy specialists and support groups can help with.
Myth 3: People with epilepsy cannot work.
Truth: People with epilepsy work in nearly all fields and professions and most people with epilepsy have very productive careers. However, it is important to consider safety issues at the workplace in case a seizure occurs on the job.
Myth 4: Women with epilepsy cannot become pregnant or have healthy babies.
Truth: Most women with epilepsy do not experience any problems becoming pregnant and have healthy babies. Although seizure medications carry a small risk of causing birth defects, choosing the right medication and having regular checkups during pregnancy can keep that risk to a minimum. Also, since having seizures during pregnancy can affect the baby, it’s important for women with epilepsy to keep seizures controlled during pregnancy by taking the correct dose of their medication.
Myth 5: Epilepsy only effects children.
Truth: Although epilepsy is more common in children, it can affect all ages. Some children with genetic forms of epilepsy can outgrow it, while elderly people can start having seizures as they get older. Older people with seizures are more likely to be misdiagnosed because they don’t typically have grand mal type seizures which are easier to recognize.
Myth 6: A seizure can cause someone to swallow their tongue.
Truth: People do not swallow their tongue when having a seizure – that’s impossible. They can, however, bite their tongue. Never put anything in an individual’s mouth who is experiencing a seizure. It could cause them to choke. After someone has a seizure, roll them on their side to reduce their risk of choking on saliva.
Myth 7: Epilepsy can’t be cured or treated.
Truth: There are several treatments available for people with epilepsy. Medications are incredibly effective and with the right medication at the right dose, there can be minimal or no side effects. For most people with epilepsy, seizures can be controlled completely with medications. When medications don’t work, there are other treatments for stopping seizures including brain surgery and special diets.
Suzette LaRoche, MD, is a neurologist and epileptologist at Mission Health Neurosciences. (828) 213-9530