About 3.5 million people in the United States live with epilepsy, and nearly half a million of those with the condition are children. Although not all cases of epilepsy are considered severe, it’s important to always take the condition seriously. That involves managing and treating the disease to keep seizure activity at bay and knowing what to do when a seizure occurs.
To help better understand severe epilepsy and what to do during a seizure, MyEpilepsyTeam sat down with neurologist Dr. Shifteh Sattar. Dr. Sattar is the director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and a clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
No. 1 is to stay calm, and that’s one of the hardest things to tell a person who has never seen a seizure before to do, because you will probably be panicked, and rightfully so. Even if you’ve seen many, it’s still easy to get nervous, but the key is to stay calm and turn the person to their side.
Don’t stick anything in their mouth, and try to time how long the seizure lasts.
In the beginning, if you’re witnessing a seizure, it’s important to see if some features can guide the physician in choosing the right medication or treatment plan. For example, you might notice if the person has their head turned to one side, or if one arm is stiffening first, and then they go into a full-body seizure. These details will be important to know.
Those are the most important things to know if the person is having a full-body generalized seizure — where their whole body is stiffening and shaking. But there are many different types of seizures.
If someone is just staring or unresponsive, you want to make sure they’re safe. And if it does progress to a full-body seizure, lay them down and turn them to the side to make sure that if they vomit, they don’t choke on it or aspirate it into their lungs. If you are concerned that they’re choking or if there are any other concerning issues, call 911 immediately.
Editor’s note: If the person having the seizure has a rescue medication and you have been trained on how to administer it, consider giving this medication if it is an appropriate circumstance.
Yes, if you can. I try to advise people to try and remember it because people may be very stressed watching someone have a seizure, and they aren’t going to be in the frame of mind to write things down. Even when people try to guesstimate how much time a seizure lasts, it’s usually very different from the actual timing.
Those kinds of errors even occur in the hospital, not just with parents. Sometimes, when we have children on the video when we’re monitoring them, the nurse might say the seizure lasted three minutes, when in actuality, it was 60 seconds. And that’s OK. It’s not a big deal — it happens everywhere. But that’s why, if you can remember, just look at the clock and then when it stops, you can look back and say, “Oh, it looked like it was three minutes.”
It’s relevant if you see it as a pattern. There are situations where people say, “Every time they eat a certain food, they have a seizure,” and we want to know that. But we don’t have any definitive data about food triggers. However, we do know that some people are sensitive to certain things, and if you identify that pattern, then we’ll advise them to maybe stay away from those provoking factors.
We often say that the most common trigger is sleep deprivation. A seizure may also happen when people have physiological stress — for instance, if they’re sick with a cold — but typically, for most patients with epilepsy, there isn’t often a typical trigger except in cases like patients with Dravet syndrome, for example, when they may have sensitivity to heat or temperature changes.
There isn’t actually a difference, and this can be very confusing. One of the first conversations I have at my first visit with families is that generally when you have two seizures — and in the past, we used to say if they were separated by time — then you would be classified as having epilepsy. The criteria have been revised, so it’s been easier for us to make the diagnosis. Sometimes, depending on findings from the diagnostic tests — which are usually magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] or electroencephalogram [EEG] — we may diagnose you with epilepsy after just one seizure, which is the same as a seizure disorder.
I always say Dravet syndrome is a spectrum, so you can have a mild epilepsy syndrome or a severe one. And I describe mild because sometimes, we do identify the genetic abnormality for Dravet. These children can present with seizures or status epilepticus, but over time, they might have one seizure a year or only when they’re ill. Whereas there’s another end of the spectrum in which they might experience multiple seizures daily, and there can be multiple different kinds.
For those patients, I think there could be different treatment options, but I generally say if you’re diagnosed with epilepsy — and especially with severe epilepsy syndromes — then medication should be used. The physician wants the best for the patient and the parents. We want to work with the family and try to identify the medication that has the fewest side effects and the best effect on controlling seizures. This doesn’t happen often, but we try. I always advise not to come off medications, because the risks are more significant. And the more seizures you have, especially if they’re generalized tonic-clonic, there’s a higher risk for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy [SUDEP].
I want to say I feel for them. I think having epilepsy is really hard for the family and the patient. It’s an everyday struggle and it’s a chronic disease. I think people need to realize that.
It’s important to know that certain intractable motor seizures qualify as a diagnosis for children for Make-A-Wish. I like to refer my severe epilepsy patients to Make-A-Wish during their hard times or a rough year because it’s really important for them to have a special moment.
I would love it if there were more support for the families. This is especially true for adults with epilepsy, who may need someone to drive them around. It would be amazing if there were some financial funding from the government that could accommodate that so they can feel more independent.
I also feel for young adults who have intractable epilepsy as they complete their education, finish school-transition programs, and then sometimes, there’s no way for them to move to the next step in life. I really hope that new programs would be created for them. I also believe employers should be more humble and considerate and try to provide opportunities for individuals who have epilepsy.
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