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Health: Epilepsy is nothing to be frightened of.

APPROXIMATELY 7,500 people in Northern Ireland suffer from epilepsy. Most of the rest of the population knows little about the condition.

People are frightened by epilepsy. In history people with epilepsy were called mad men or said to be possessed by the devil.

This picture is very wrong. Epilepsy is not a psychiatric condition, and it is certainly nothing to do with demonic possession.

An epileptic seizure is caused by a brief disruption to the brain functions, causing temporary abnormal activity of the nerve cells.

The British Epilepsy Association in Northern Ireland has support groups in Coleraine, Strabane and Newry where those with epilepsy, their families and carers can meet together.

Alison Dale, the Northern Ireland Children's Epilepsy Nurse Specialist explains: "There are many different types of epilepsy. It affects every person differently.

"There are generally two types of epileptic seizures. Generalised seizures affect both sides of the brain. Partial seizures affect a small area in one half of the brain."

Most people associate epilepsy with someone collapsing on the floor, shaking and jerking uncontrollably. This is the generalised tonic-clonic seizure also known as grand mal epilepsy.

Absence seizures (petit mal epilepsy) are just as common however, but often this condition is very hard to detect.

"Teachers can play a vital role in diagnosing epilepsy in children," Alison explains.

"In an absence seizure, the person looks as if they are daydreaming.

"They stare, blink or look blank for a few seconds before carrying on with what they were doing.

"People around them may think they are simply not paying attention. It can be very difficult for a child who repeatedly misses out on information at school by having absence seizures.

"Often the first sign of a child having epilepsy comes from a deterioration in their school work."

A simple partial epileptic seizure can involve the person having a twitching hand. They know they are doing it but are unable to stop.

In a complex partial seizure people are awake but not very responsive. They can be plucking clothes or wandering around.

"Some people may think they are just acting silly or even drunk when they are having a fit," says Alison.

Epilepsy can occur at any stage of life but is most common in children up to the age of 14 and in people over 60.

Approximately one child in 150 has epilepsy with it being more common in those with learning disabilities and other multiple illnesses.

Epilepsy can occur as a result of brain damage. It can also develop as a result of a severe head injury, after meningitis, by hormonal change or as a result of drug and alcohol abuse.

Often the reason for epilepsy developing remains unknown.

Alison advises that: "People with epilepsy should drink no more than two units of alcohol a day and stay clear of drugs.

"With the use of medication, 80 per cent of children are able to control their epilepsy within 18 months to two years of starting their treatment, she said.

"A small percentage of people have great difficulty controlling seizures and will need to have surgery.

"The Northern Ireland adult epilepsy specialist nurse Ena Bingham has began to use aromatherapy as a means of treating and controlling epilepsy with her patients.

"It is used as a means of relaxation and stress management. Although still in its early stages, this method is already quite successful and in the future it may be used to help children with epilepsy also.

"Many people are able to keep their seizures to a minimum by avoiding situations which they know may bring on an attack.

"Triggers to someone having a seizure include over-tiredness, stress or infections and high temperature with a cold.

"My advice to parents with children who have epilepsy are the same as to any parent - healthy eating, rest and exercise."

It can be a very traumatic time for someone when they are first diagnosed as having epilepsy.

Openness and honesty are often the best ways to combat any stigma surrounding the condition.

Most people will be sympathetic and supportive if they know how they can help.

"It is especially confusing for children when they don't remember what has happened to them. They need their seizure explained to them in terms that they understand," said Alison Dale.

"It is important that parents talk to their child openly, building up their confidence whilst not being too overprotective.

"Friends can be great support when you explain your condition and they know you may have a seizure now and again.

"Often it is the parents who are uneasy. People need to be educated more about epilepsy. For example you cannot catch epilepsy - it is not infectious."

Most seizures are self-limiting and last for about two or three minutes.

If they last for longer than 10 minutes or if a series of seizures take place without the person properly regaining consciousness in between - then medical help should be sought immediately.

How you can help someone suffering in the throes of a seizure

The majority of us must admit that we would not know what to do or how to help if someone had an epileptic fit.

Alison Dale offers this advice to people on what to do when someone has a generalised tonic clonic or grand mal seizure.

l Try to keep as calm as possible.

l Don't move the sufferer unless they are in danger.

l Move any furniture or anything with sharp edges so that they cannot hurt themselves.

l Do not try to hold them down or restrict movement.

l Put something soft under their head. Cushion their head with your hands if nothing else is available.

l Loosen any restrictive clothing.

l Do not put anything in their mouth or make them drink anything.

l Whenever they stop jerking, place the person in the recovery position.

l If incontinence occurred during the seizure, place a blanket or something over the person to maintain their dignity.

l Stay with them until they are fully recovered.

HELPLINES

British Epilepsy Association, Belfast: 01232-799355 or 0800-309030

Irish Epilepsy Association, Dublin: 01-4557500
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Fox, Declan
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 31, 1999
Words:1015
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