Seize the Disease
For many, the term “epilepsy” conjures up images of seizures and panic,
along with the misnomer that people with the disease live a sheltered life. What’s more, many of us fear how to help if we witness an epileptic having a seizure. (Note: A person having a seizure cannot swallow his or her tongue, this is just a myth). In reality, medication and control of this disease has come a long way. You may be surprised to learn that one to two percent of the population, more than two million Americans, are living quality lives with epilepsy.
WHAT IS EPILEPSY?
“[Epilepsy is] having unprovoked seizures, again and again, which are not caused by medicine, a head injury, an infection or a fever,” says Amer Khan, M.D., pediatric neurologist with Sutter Medical Group in Roseville. Epilepsy can be genetic or it can develop from a head injury, a tumor, or in people who have abused drugs or alcohol. “A majority of seizures are idiopathic, meaning there is no specific cause that we can attribute to it,” says Dr. Khan. “The theoretical idea about those people is that the circuits in their brains, for some unknown reason, just don’t work properly.”
A person with epilepsy will experience seizures, which can manifest is several ways. They may just look “spaced out”—staring and not responding to stimulation—or they may have an uncontrollable twitching of body parts. Seizures can also result in a person becoming unconscious and shaking, or stiff throughout their entire body. “It can be very scary to look at,” says Dr. Khan. “But people don’t usually die from seizures.”
The disease is treated in a variety of ways—from medications to devices implanted into the brain and laser surgery of the brain—depending on the frequency and severity of the seizures. While fewer and less severe seizures usually require medications, more severe cases may require laser surgery on a part of the brain to stop the abnormal function.
Seizures can affect an epileptic’s ability to drive, have a job, be in a relationship, and sense of security. “A common misperception is that if you have seizures, you cannot drive,” says Dr. Khan. This is not true. “In California, doctors are required to report to the DMV if they know someone had a seizure and the license is suspended temporarily, until proven that the seizures are under control and treated.”
While there are no homeopathic or dietary treatments for epilepsy, some neurologists recommend a ketogenic diet. Similar to Atkins, it consists of consuming foods that have minimal or no starches or carbohydrates and sugars, so the body is forced to produce energy by breaking down fats and proteins. As they’re broken down, fats and proteins produce ketones, which in some cases can stop seizures from occurring. Dr. Khan also stresses that those with epilepsy should avoid dietary triggers, including excessive alcohol, caffeine and nicotine.
“Most cases of epilepsy can be treated quite well,” says Dr. Khan. If someone is having seizures, the first stop is a primary care doctor and then that person will be referred to a neurologist. In complex cases, a person may be referred to an epilepsy specialist. “For a majority of people, epilepsy starts in childhood and they grow out of it,” adds Dr. Khan. “Some will continue having seizures and an even smaller percentage will [experience] some that are disabling.”
Visit epilepsyfoundation.org for more information.