4 Myths About Epilepsy

When talking about November’s Epilepsy Awareness Month, it’s clear that most people don’t know much about the disease beyond the idea that it’s some sort of brain condition. Beyond that, things get murky… at best. Here are four of the murkiest epilepsy beliefs, and the truth behind them!

Because epilepsy is (very basically) electricity in the brain that escapes its intended path, what we call “seizures” can look very different for different people. If the escaped electricity reaches areas of the brain that control movement, seizures might include muscle spasms. But that’s not always the case. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, the main kinds of seizures include tonic-clonic, absence, and atonic. These are technical names! But if you or someone you love has epilepsy, it’s worth visiting the Epilepsy Foundation page to learn more about the specific kind of seizure involved.

You’ve seen those warnings on amusement park rides or movies, things like “Warning! Flashing Lights May Cause Seizures!” In part, that’s true: In some people with epilepsy, special patterns of flashing lights may trigger brain activity that causes seizures, and in these cases, it’s important to take those flashing-lights warnings seriously! But only about 3 percent of people with epilepsy are “photosensitive,” meaning that their condition can be activated by light. Even in these cases, often many factors need to be just right (or just wrong…) to trigger a seizure, including the speed of the flashing light, its brightness, the color of the light, how flashes contrast with background lighting, distance, and whether a person’s eyes are open or closed.

The traditional wisdom was that if you saw someone having a seizure, you should put your wallet or a belt in their mouth, the belief being that the wallet would protect their tongue. And if you couldn’t get your wallet out in time, a finger would work, too. According to the American Academy of Neurology, that’s not such a good plan. Instead, if a person having an epileptic seizure becomes unconscious, you should roll that person to their side so that any vomit is not swallowed or inhaled, but never put anything in that person’s mouth. The risk of choking is much greater than the risk of tongue injury!

Because epilepsy comes in many shapes and forms, it’s easy to miss people with the condition. Even if a person’s seizures are violent, unless you know someone well, there’s a good chance you may simply not be around when a seizure happens. This means that it’s easy to imagine that epilepsy is rare, but that’s not the case at all. Every year, 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with epilepsy, making the lifetime risk about 1-in-26, and making epilepsy the fifth most common brain disorder after migraines, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.