What is Epilepsy?

The term "epilepsy" refers to a common neurological condition that causes repeated seizures. Seizures happen when an abnormal surge of electrical activity occurs in a person's brain. This overload may be isolated to a small area of the brain, or it can affect the whole system. These events may cause problems with muscle control, movement, speech, vision, or awareness, and can change behaviour.

Doctors often do not know what causes epilepsy - less than half of people with epilepsy know why they have it. In many cases, seizures may be caused by other factors such as head injuries, brain tumours, brain infection, or stroke.

Types of Seizures

Generalized Tonic-Clonic Seizures

  • The ones most people tend to think of relating to epilepsy
  • Causes convulsions that last from 2 to 5 minutes
  • Complete loss of consciousness
  • Muscle spasms

Absence Seizures

  • Blank stare or loss of awareness lasting only a few seconds

Partial Seizures

  • Involuntary arm or leg movements
  • Distorted sensations or a period of automatic movements in which awareness is blurred or completely absent


Signs & Symptoms

The main symptom of epilepsy is repeated seizures that happen without warning. Without treatment, seizures may continue and become worse and more frequent over time.

There are different kinds of seizures. A person may have only one type of seizure. Some people have more than one type. Depending on what kind of seizure a person has:

  • Their senses may not work right. For example, they may notice strange smells or sounds.
  • They may lose control of their muscles.
  • They may fall down, and their body may twitch or jerk.
  • They may stare off into space.
  • They may faint (lose consciousness).

Not everyone who has seizures has epilepsy. Sometimes seizures happen because of an injury, illness, or another problem. In these cases, the seizures stop when that problem improves or goes away.


First-Aid for Epilepsy

Depending on the type of seizure a person has, first-aid may not be necessary. In general, assist the person by protecting them from their surroundings and injury.

  • Do not put anything in their mouth.
  • Do not try to hold their tongue - they won't swallow it.
  • Do not try to give liquids during or immediately after a seizure. Wait a few minutes until they recover.
  • Do not use artificial respiration unless their breathing stops after the convulsive episode, or unless water has been inhaled.
  • Do not restrain them. Help them to the ground and place something soft under their head.
  • If this is their first seizure, they should be seen by a medical professional.


Preventing Epilepsy

Since the cause of epilepsy is often not clear, it is generally not possible to prevent it.

Head injury, a common cause of epilepsy, may be preventable. Always wear your seat belt in the car and a helmet when riding a bike or motorcycle, skiing, skating, or horseback riding.

Adapted from:
Epilepsy First Aid, 2011. Epilepsy Canada.