What you need to know about epilepsy . . . and seizures

I’ll be talking to Jill Krop about epilepsy on her am B.C. talk show on Global’s new BC1 channel, Tuesday March 26th at 9 am.

Here’s the link to the video:

On June 28th, 2012, Parliament enacted the Purple Day Act designating every March 26th to be “Purple Day.” Canadians are encouraged to wear the colour, purple to support people with epilepsy and to increase public awareness of this medical condition.

Purple Day was founded in 2008 as a global day of epilepsy awareness by 9-year-old Cassidy Megan and the Epilepsy Association of Nova Scotia.

Those of us confused by the variable dates of Spring Break and Easter holidays should note that Purple Day is not a holiday. Go to work or school, but wear purple and learn more about epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a medical (not a psychological) condition marked by recurrent seizures, which are episodes of recurrent abnormal electrical activity in the brain and manifested by neurological symptoms that may include involuntary movement or sensations.

An estimated 0.5 to 1% of the general population suffers from epilepsy. Seizures themselves are much more common; approximately 1 in 10 people may experience one at some time in their lives. Most people with a single seizure will not be diagnosed with epilepsy.

Seizures can result from a variety of conditions, including pre-eclampsia (a condition associated with high blood pressure in pregnancy); withdrawal from excessive alcohol or from medications, such as sleeping pills; an abnormality of chemicals in the blood, including sodium, oxygen or glucose; or brain disorders, including head trauma and strokes.

Children are much more susceptible to seizures. Very young children may suffer from a febrile seizure. Though this is of course frightening for parents, most of these children will not have recurrent seizures or epilepsy.

Children are also more sensitive to photic or light-induced seizures. In 1997, 685 Japanese children sought medical attention for neurological symptoms while watching an episode of the cartoon, Pokemon. 80% of these children were diagnosed with a seizure induced by a scene involving an explosion of lights.

Absence or petit mal seizures are more common in children and are marked by very brief – perhaps 5 to 15 second – episodes. These children may appear to be staring blankly as if daydreaming.

Complex partial seizures (formerly called temporal lobe epilepsy) are more common in adults, and though individuals appear to be awake they do not respond normally. They may get a variety of psychological or motor symptoms depending on what part of the brain is affected. For example, involvement of the speech centre will impair language whereas involvement of the occipital lobe will affect vision.

Tonic clonic (or grand mal) seizures involve the entire cerebral cortex. The tonic phase involves stiffening of the muscles. This is followed by the clonic phase with repetitive muscle jerking. Because large areas of the brain are involved, the individual is unconscious.

In status epilepticus, seizures are nonstop or prolonged (i.e. over 5 minutes).

Before the onset of a seizure, some individuals experience an aura – neurological symptoms or a feeling of not feeling quite right. After a seizure, individuals may have post-ictal symptoms, including drowsiness, confusion or headaches.

So what should you do when someone is having a seizure?

Remain calm. Ensure the safety of the individual. In a tonic clonic seizure, try to protect the individual (especially his or her head) from harm striking objects around them but avoid restraining them. With complex partial seizures, individuals may need to be gently guided. You should remain with them until they are fully alert and oriented.

You should call 911 for first time seizures, status epilepticus or other undiagnosed neurological symptoms. Individuals may have conditions other than epilepsy or the seizures may indicate other medical conditions requiring prompt treatment.

For appropriate first aid training, I recommend a course with St. John Ambulance (, and for more information about epilepsy, check, the website of Epilepsy Canada.