Epilepsy is an electrical problem in the brain. Our brains use neurons that communicate with each other using chemical 'messengers'. When someone has an epileptic fit, it happens because those neurons behave uncharacteristically, sending random and unexpected bursts of electrical impulses that cause the brain and then the body to behave weirdly.
That weirdness can affect different people in different ways. It may mean they simply feel a bit disorientated or detached, but are still fully aware of what is happening around them. At the other end of the spectrum it can result in a person having what is now known as a 'tonic-clonic' seizure (it used to be called a 'grand-mal seizure'), losing consciousness and control of their body muscles.
This loss of control can manifest as uncontrollable shakes and twitching of the muscles, which is alarming to witness, especially as the loss of consciousness often means the person has collapsed to the ground.
Who can be affected?
Anyone can be affected by epilepsy. Over 600,000 people in the UK alone have this condition, and on a global scale, about 0.5-1% of the population overall has or will have epilepsy.
When diagnosed from an early age, epilepsy is effectively a life-time condition, although it doesn't have to be life-limiting if managed well.
Sometimes the genes we inherit from our parents mean that we will endure changes to the way our brains are made up and this can lead to epilepsy at some point. This may be at a young age, or it may appear later on.
Sometimes head injuries, tumours, or even strokes can make such powerful changes in our brains that we get epilepsy later in life. Often, a person is diagnosed with epilepsy if they have had more than one seizure in their lifetime, because a huge percentage of the world population have a one-off epileptic event during their lifetime, but never see it again.
Epileptic conditions that appear in older people may sometimes be due to 'cerebrovascular' issues. This is where the blood vessels like veins and arteries that supply blood to the brain become hardened and narrow over time. The reduced blood flow can result in permanent damage to those blood vessels which in turn exacerbates the condition still more.
Can epilepsy be cured?
Epilepsy has been known about for thousands of years, and has been a well-documented, if misunderstood, condition throughout the time of the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, into the Middle Ages and the modern world today. It has been called dozens of different names, alluding to the power of God to punish, 'unspeakable misery', and even lunacy!
Yet, throughout that time, no person has found an outright cure for the condition, though the good news is that there are several effective ways in which it can be managed, even for those who have many seizures on a regular basis.
Most people - even children - who often have severe seizures are treated with pharmaceuticals designed to control the seizures. One example of these anti-epileptic drugs (AED) is gabapentin.
However, AEDs can sometimes come with a multitude of side effects, including confusion, short term memory loss, and constipation. Not every person is a suitable subject for these drugs and side effects, so in some cases, brain surgery, where the surgeon removes the troublesome part of the brain, may be considered.
A new way to help manage severe epilepsy is where the surgeon may install a tiny electronic device that can control the seizures, a bit like a pacemaker for the brain.
If you or someone you love is affected by epilepsy, you should ensure you understand all the options available to people with the condition, and that you know why you are offered particular solutions. For example, if you only have one 'absent' fit every couple of years, your doctor is unlikely to recommend surgery. If you are affected by the condition every week or month, however, you may be referred for specialist and even surgical assistance.
What to do if someone has an epileptic fit?
One of the things National Epilepsy Week 2016 has focused on is ensuring bystanders know what to do when someone has an epileptic seizure in front of them.
The charity, Epilepsy Action has created this useful guide to enable you to help someone who is having an epileptic fit , and there's a handy video on the page too, if you're better at learning through visual means.
Knowledge is the greatest weapon to battle stigma and embarrassment, so the more you know about how to help someone with the condition, the better for everyone.
If you're doing something to raise awareness for National Epilepsy Week 2016, why not send us a tweet to @SahanCares with the hashtag #epilepsyweek and let us know how you're doing with that! The more information we can get out about the condition, the better the world can become for those who live with it.