Fact and Fiction

The myth: Epilepsy is a form of spiritual possession.

The truth: Although most people have long recognized that epilepsy is not a form of possession, some cultures still believe this. Epilepsy organizations are working hard to educate all people that epilepsy is a medical condition, a disorder of the brain that causes sufferers to have recurrent seizures.

The myth: You are born with epilepsy. The cause is genetic.

The truth: Anyone can develop epilepsy at any time. Some people are born with it, whereas others have their very first seizure in middle age. While genetics can play a factor, there are other more common causes of epilepsy, such as head trauma, brain tumour or lesion and stroke. In most cases—about 65 to 70 percent—the cause of epilepsy is not known.


The myth: Epilepsy affects intelligence.

The truth: People with epilepsy on average have the same level of intelligence as those without epilepsy. Learning can be made more difficult if seizures are frequent, or if medication has very pronounced side effects, such as causing drowsiness and excessive fatigue. However, epilepsy typically does not cause lower intelligence. In fact, some very talented and brilliant people have epilepsy, including some pretty influential historical figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, Vincent Van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven, Agatha Christie and Napoleon.

The myth: People with epilepsy can’t work, excel at school, have children or lead normal lives.

The truth: You’ve probably guessed by now that having epilepsy doesn’t preclude someone from doing well at school, excelling in the workplace, having a family and leading a busy life. Epilepsy is a medical condition that can be managed and therefore people with epilepsy can often lead normal lives.

The myth: There are only two types of seizure—grand mal and petit mal.

The truth: In fact, there are more than 40 different types of seizures, grand and petit mal are old fashioned terms. Seizures can take many forms including a blank stare, involuntary movement, altered consciousness, a change in sensation or a convulsion. They can be split into 2 groups: Focal where one are of the brain is effected, Generalised where the whole brain is effected.

The myth: During a seizure, you can swallow your tongue.

The truth: it is impossible for someone to swallow their tongue during a seizure and therefore nothing should ever go into a person's mouth during a seizure.

The myth: Seizures are always medical emergencies and you should call 999.

The truth: Actually, seizures are most often not medical emergencies and an ambulance is not always required. You should call 999, however, if: a seizure lasts five minutes or longer or repeats one after another without the person regaining consciousness in-between; it is someone's first seizure; the person is injured during the seizure (through a fall, for example); the seizure happens in water; or the person is pregnant or has diabetes.

First Aid for Seizures (from Epilepsy Action website)

Tonic-Clonic seizures

The person goes stiff, loses consciousness and then falls to the ground. This is followed by jerking movements. A blue tinge around the mouth is likely. This is due to irregular breathing. Loss of bladder and/or bowel control may happen. After a minute or two the jerking movements should stop and consciousness may slowly return.

Do...
  • Protect the person from injury - (remove harmful objects from nearby)
  • Cushion their head
  • Look for an epilepsy identity card or identity jewellery
  • Aid breathing by gently placing them in the recovery position once the seizure has finished (see pictures)
  • Stay with the person until recovery is complete
  • Be calmly reassuring
The recovery position
Don't...
  • Restrain the person’s movements
  • Put anything in the person’s mouth
  • Try to move them unless they are in danger
  • Give them anything to eat or drink until they are fully recovered
  • Attempt to bring them round
Call for an ambulance if...
  • You know it is the person’s first seizure, or
  • The seizure continues for more than five minutes, or
  • One tonic-clonic seizure follows another without the person regaining consciousness between seizures, or
  • The person is injured during the seizure, or
  • You believe the person needs urgent medical attention
Focal (partial) seizures

Sometimes the person is not aware of their surroundings or what they are doing. They may pluck at their clothes, smack their lips, swallow repeatedly, and wander around.
Do...
  • Guide the person from danger
  • Stay with the person until recovery is complete
  • Be calmly reassuring
  • Explain anything that they may have missed
Don't...
  • Restrain the person
  • Act in a way that could frighten them, such as making abrupt movements or shouting at them
  • Assume the person is aware of what is happening, or what has happened
  • Give the person anything to eat or drink until they are fully recovered
  • Attempt to bring them round
Call for an ambulance if...
  • You know it is the person's first seizure
  • The seizure continues for more than five minutes
  • The person is injured during the seizure
  • You believe the person needs urgent medical attention



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