Brain & Spine Health | Family Health | Living With Chronic Conditions
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Epilepsy: Myths Versus Facts

Moving beyond stigma

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.

Did you know?

These 10 famous
people had epilepsy:

  • Socrates
  • Alexander the Great
  • Julius Caesar
  • Napoleon
  • Thomas Edison
  • Leonardo DaVinci
  • Lord Byron
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Alfred Nobel

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.

Tags: epilepsy, epilepsy awareness month 2012, seizures
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  • Ronald Segeat

    A grandmal is like a mini stroke. Lack of oxygen to brain is never a gd thing. Drs act like they know it all like some ppl but never had one. If ppl with epilepsy can handle tough work why wont the military take ppl with it. These meds r a joke and r side effect happy for it. Some don’t have it for yrs that’s why there r ppl with a better memory than others some have them every day. Epilepsy has been around forever and wont ever be a cure for it. Never will I or would I have brain surgery. I seen doctors tell my dad he will be fine on CEMO and a massive stroke took him for good. Talk I cheap I believe half of what I see or hear.

    • Eutychus

      Ron, a generalized (“gran mal” in outdated terminology) seizure involves epileptiform activity taking place on one side of the brain generalizing (moving from a specific location) to the entire brain. This only involves bioelectricity. A stroke involves a blood vessel and is much more serious. And allow me to plug the surgery option. Got my scar in ’87 and haven’t had a seizure since. Look into it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Tiptop1958 Michele Smith

    Great information. I do get them but take medication for it.

  • D DUANE DEMING

    I’VE HAD EPILEPSY FOR THE PAST 47 YEARS OF MY LIFE……I AM NOW 55 YEARS OLD. OTHERS WERE VERY CRUEL ALL THROUGH MY SCHOOL YEARS, AND NOWADAYS, THE VERY SAME PEOPLE WALK UP TO ME AS IF WE WERE BEST FRIENDS!! BACK IN 2002, I HAD A VAGUS NERVE STIMULATOR IMPLANTED IN MY CHEST (SOMEWHAT LIKE A PACEMAKER, FOR THOSE FEW WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND). I HAVE BEEN MOSTLY SEIZURE-FREE SINCE! AS LONG AS I CONTINUE MY MEDS, OF COURSE!!

  • Purple Penguin

    Thank you so much for publicizing epilepsy in this way! These are important facts for the general public to know. I would disagree with “people are not in pain while having seizures.” I had complex partial epilepsy for 20 years before brain surgery last year and my seizures caused me significant pain because I was slightly conscious but lost all control. I hallucinated and felt like I was being chased but couldn’t get away and my heart raced.

  • Amy Armstrong

    Your info for #8 is not correct. Partial seizures that occur hundreds of times daily and go on sometimes for days ARE EXTREMELY PAINFUL.

  • Jean

    My son had seizures starting at age 15 he was on meds for many years and it helped control them. A neurologist
    decided to take him off his meds without any testing as he said he was seizure free based on the fact only that
    he had not had one for eight years. He died at age 36 of a seizure. How often does a seizure end up in death?
    We were always warned, it looks worse than it is. Our son did not have them often and was living a healthy life.