Epilepsy: fighting myths and saving lives

BBC News reports on a recently published study that found that myths about epilepsy and its treatment are still widely believed, possibly putting people at risk. This post will tell you how to help someone having a seizure.

The research project, led by Dr Sallie Baxendale, used the internet to survey over 4,500 people concerning their knowledge of the effects of epilepsy, and what to do if someone has a seizure.

The study found that myths about the effects are widespread, many people still believe that epilepsy commonly causes ‘foaming at the mouth’ and is strongly linked to violence, neither of which are the case.

More worringly, a third of people thought they should put something in the mouth of a person having a seizure to stop them ‘swallowing their tongue’ and two-thirds would always call an ambulance.

Never put anything in the mouth of someone having a seizure (they could choke) and you only need to call an ambulance if it’s the person’s first seizure, if the seizure has been going on for more than five minutes, if they don’t regain consciousness between seizures, or if they’re physically injured.

This is the advice from Epilepsy Action about how to help someone who is having a tonic-clonic seizure.

These are what are sometimes called ‘fits’ and used to be called ‘grand-mal’ seizures. ‘Grand mal’ literally means ‘great evil’, and so understandably, isn’t used by the medical profession, although it still is used in day-to-day language by some people not familiar with the proper name.

Tonic-Clonic seizures

The person loses consciousness, the body stiffens, 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 occur. After a minute or two the jerking movements should stop and consciousness may slowly return.

* 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 [pictured] once the seizure has finished
* Be calmly reassuring
* Stay with the person until recovery is complete

* Restrain the person
* Put anything in the person’s mouth
* Try to move the person unless they are in danger
* 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
* One tonic-clonic seizure follows another without the person regaining consciousness between seizures
* The person is injured during the seizure
* You believe the person needs urgent medical attention

Obviously, if no-one knows whether it’s the person’s first seizure and they are unable to tell you, or no-one knows when the seizure started, call an ambulance.

Also, some people who have seizures will have strong emotional reactions when they come round owing to the brain disturbance.

The person might regain consciousness and seem terrified, traumatised, confused or very anxious (not always the case, some people feel elated).

This may cause onlookers to get equally anxious and panicky. Stay calm and just reassure the person (and everyone else if necessary!), gently letting them know what’s happened.

The Epilepsy Action first aid page also has information on dealing with other types of seizure.

Take the opportunity to read through the information – the next five minutes of your life could save someone else’s.

Link to Epilepsy Action first aid information.
Link to BBC News story ‘Many ‘believe myths’ on epilepsy’.
Link to abstract of research report.

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