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All you need to know about epilepsy

Most people with epilepsy can live a normal life if they take their medication and the condition is well controlled.

According to Dr Nhlakanipho Gumede, the Clinical Manager of Medical Services at Harry Gwala Regional Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, epilepsy is not a psychological disorder, disease or illness, and it is not contagious.

He explains that epilepsy is a neurological disorder marked by sudden recurrent episodes of sensory disturbance, loss of consciousness or convulsions, associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

“The brain comprises of billions of nerve cells (neurons) communicating through electrical and chemical signals. When there is a sudden excessive electrical discharge that disrupts the normal activity of the nerve cells, a seizure may result.

“A single seizure does not necessarily mean you have epilepsy. A diagnosis by a medical practitioner needs to confirm this,” he says.

According to Epilepsy South Africa, 80% of people with epilepsy will be able to control their seizures with medication.

Causes and seizures

The cause of epilepsy in six out of 10 people is not known. In the other 40%, it can be caused by a head injury, injury during the birthing process, alcohol and drug abuse, aging or a metabolic or biochemical disturbance or imbalance.

Dr Gumede says the signs and symptoms of epilepsy vary, and can present in various ways, including generalised absence seizures (petit mal), when a person looks blank and stares; generalised tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal), which commonly start with body stiffening, before the person falls down and has jerking movements; and complex partial seizures, which affect a part of the brain.

A petit mal seizure only lasts a few seconds, and the person may be unaware that they had one. During a grand mal seizure, the person may have a blue colour around their mouth, which fades when normal breathing resumes. Grand mal seizures usually last a few minutes.

“Protect the person from injury by moving objects away and cushioning their head. Don’t restrict their movement or put anything in their mouth. Help breathing by laying the person on their side when the seizure ends. Stay with the person until they have fully recovered.”

During a complex partial seizure, the person may appear confused, distracted or drunk. They may also have repetitive movements, such as plucking at their clothes. “Remove harmful objects and guide the person away from danger. Talk quietly and reassure them,” says Dr Gumede.

* Information supplied by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health.

For more information about epilepsy, visit Epilepsy SA’s website at https://epilepsy.org.za, or visit your closest healthcare facility for assistance.