Frequently Asked Questions
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy, from the Greek word meaning "to
seize", is a neurological disorder that affects more than 2.5 million
Americans with 181,000 newly diagnosed each year. Somewhere between 1 and 2
percent of all Pennsylvanians are affected by the disorder. More people suffer
from epilepsy than with Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis
and muscular dystrophy combined. Epilepsy is the third most common neurological
disorder after stroke and Alzheimer's disease. About 70 percent of the time, the
cause of epilepsy is not known. Head trauma, infections, or neurological
disorders can be involved. Sometimes, heredity also plays a role.
Epilepsy is not a disease, a form of mental illness, or a
sign of low intelligence. It is not contagious. Epilepsy is a disorder of the
nervous system. It can affect anyone, at any age, at any time. In fact, it is
estimated that one in 10 people will have a seizure sometime during his or her
lifetime. People who have epilepsy are not developmentally delayed, mentally
ill, dangerous or have a "certain look". Most people with epilepsy
lead normal and happy lives. They attend school, get jobs, get married and have
children. Epilepsy does not limit a person's ability.
People who have epilepsy should be treated
like everyone else.
What is a seizure?
Epilepsy is a neurological condition caused by sudden,
brief changes in the brain's electrical balance. When there are excess
electrical charges in the brain, seizures occur. This can alter awareness,
physical movements, consciousness or actions. Usually, a seizure lasts between
a few seconds and a few minutes.
characteristics vary from person to person, ranging from generalized tonic-clonic
(grand mal) which are accompanied by convulsions and loss of consciousness, to
absence (petit mal), during which the person may appear to be daydreaming or
switching off. Complex partial seizures are the most common. These seizures are
characterized by a blank stare that lasts a few seconds, rapid eye blinking or
chewing and other random repetitive movements. Seizures may sometimes be
confused with other health conditions like heart attack, stroke or lack of
Often seizures first develop during the pre-school and
elementary school years. While epilepsy is generally a chronic and/or lifelong
condition, people with epilepsy can often control the number of seizures they
have through the use of antiepileptic medications, special diets or surgery.
When does a seizure happen?
Most seizures occur without warning, although some people
have a funny feeling or a weird smell or taste right before a seizure. This is
called an aura. Others find that certain things may trigger a seizure; not getting
enough sleep, stress, anxiety and hormonal changes. A seizure can happen
anywhere, at any time.
What does a seizure look like?
The most commonly recognized type of seizure is a
generalized tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure. When people think of this type of
seizure, they usually think of someone falling down unconscious and shaking.
This type of seizure usually lasts for several minutes.
Another common type of seizure, especially in young
children, is an absence (petit mal) seizure that is characterized by a blank
stare, beginning and ending abruptly, lasting only a few seconds. This type of
seizure may also be accompanied by rapid eye blinking or chewing movements of
the mouth. While this type of seizure involves loss of awareness, the person
having an absence seizure will quickly return to full awareness.
These are just two examples of the most common types of
seizures. Other seizure types include simple partial, complex partial, atonic
and myoclonic seizures.
What do I do if I am with someone who has a
If a friend has a seizure, he or she may fall down and
begin to shake.
calm and track time.
anything out of the way that might injure the person.
roll the person onto his or her side.
something soft under his or her head - not your hand!
anything tight around his or her neck.
NOT put anything into the person's mouth!
NOT try to restrain or hold the person down.
for epilepsy or seizure disorder identification.
If the seizure lasts longer than five minutes, get help!
Remember, if you see someone having a seizure, you can help. You can't do
anything to stop the seizure, but you may be able to prevent and/or minimize
injury that might occur as a result of the seizure.
If you have epilepsy, you are not alone!
Epilepsy might be something you have, but it is not who
you are. There are many things you and your loved ones can do to cope with the
1. Seek information and assistance!
Along with reputable Internet websites (see listing
below), brochures and books, the ESSP grantees can be of assistance in better
understanding epilepsy and seizure disorders. Locate the appropriate grantees
from the information below and give them a call.
Epilepsy Foundation of Western/Central PA serves 49 counties (appearing in
grey on the map below) including the Greater Pittsburgh, Erie and
Harrisburg areas. You may reach this Foundation by calling, toll-free,
1-800-361-5885 or by visiting them on-line at www.efwp.org.
Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern PA serves 18 (appearing in orange on the map
below) counties including the Greater Wilkes Barre/Scranton,
Bethlehem/Allentown/Reading and Philadelphiaareas. You may reach this
Foundation by calling, toll-free, 1-800-887-7165 or by visiting them
on-line at www.efepa.org.