We’re in the information age. Yet some myths about epilepsy seem to have hung on since the Dark Ages.
Below, Imad Najm, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Epilepsy Center, lists 13 common myths and the very different realities behind them:
Myth 1: Epilepsy is rare
Fact: Epilepsy is the third most common neurological disorder, after stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Approximately 2.7 million Americans are estimated to have epilepsy.
Myth 2: People with epilepsy are mentally ill, emotionally unstable or possessed
Fact: Epilepsy is an umbrella term covering more than 20 different types of seizure disorders. It is a functional, physical problem, not a mental one.
Myth 3: People with epilepsy aren’t as smart as other people
Fact: Epilepsy has little to no effect on a person’s ability to think, except during seizures and sometimes as a side effect of certain antiepileptic medications. Some of the smartest and most creative people in history are believed to have had epilepsy. (See box at right.)
Myth 4: People who have seizures can’t handle high-pressure, demanding jobs
Fact: They often can, and they do. Most professions — including those in the highest tiers of business, government and medicine — can accommodate a person with epilepsy.
Myth 5: People with epilepsy look different
Fact: Epilepsy has no physical manifestations except for some of the seizures themselves. Any other issues, such as motor or learning problems, are unrelated.
Myth 6: Epilepsy is contagious
Fact: False. Epilepsy cannot be passed from one person to another.
Myth 7: It’s easy to tell when a seizure is about to occur
Fact: The onset of seizures can’t yet be predicted, although some patients report a brief sensation within seconds of a seizure’s physical manifestation. But research is active in this area. Dogs are being trained to detect the onset of seizures. One day, everyone with epilepsy may be able to tell when a seizure is coming on.
Myth 8: Seizures hurt
Fact: A person is unconscious during a seizure and not in any pain. Afterward, there may be discomfort because of a fall, muscle aches or a bitten tongue.
Myth 9: Epilepsy is most common in children
Fact: Epilepsy is a condition that affects people of all ages, races and nationalities. Epilepsy most often strikes the very young and the elderly, but people can develop epilepsy at any age.
Myth 10: During a seizure, a person may swallow his or her tongue
Fact: Impossible. The worst thing that can happen during a seizure is that a person may bite his or her tongue.
Myth 11: Epilepsy can’t be controlled effectively
Fact: There are many ways to treat, to minimize, to control and even — under the right conditions — to eliminate epilepsy. As a matter of fact, epileptic seizures can be adequately controlled in more than two thirds of patients with epilepsy if medications are appropriately chosen and used.
Myth 12: Epilepsy is a benign disease
Fact: It’s true that the majority of patients with epilepsy achieve complete seizure control through medications or surgical treatment. However, uncontrollable seizures that persist are a big risk factor for sudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP). That’s why it’s important to continue to see your neurologist regularly if you have epilepsy.
Myth 13: Women with epilepsy should not get pregnant
Fact: A large percentage of women with epilepsy have normal, healthy babies. Although the risk of birth defects is increased for women with epilepsy compared with the general population, the overall risks are low. Risks can be minimized by closely working with the neurologist and obstetrician.
The truth is that people with epilepsy may be smart, famous and highly productive — just like anyone else.