Reporter: Matt Mazer
Would you know what to do if you saw a classmate having an epileptic seizure?
Epilepsy affects one per cent of the general population, which works out to about 330,000 people in Canada.
However, many people do not know exactly what it is or what to do if they see somebody having a seizure. The number of people in Canada with epilepsy is just under 129,000, according to Statistics Canada, but that figure only represents those who are taking medication for it.
Dianne McKenzie, co-ordinator of Epilepsy Durham Region in Whitby, says when people are diagnosed with epilepsy at any age, it may a source of struggle for them and their family.
“Epilepsy is an electrical energy or charge within the brain, which could be triggered or caused by many injuries to the brain – through trauma at birth, a car accident (or) through a tumour, and there is no known cause of epilepsy. When we say there are two cases of unprovoked seizures there’s usually a diagnosis of epilepsy but not always,” McKenzie said.
There are more than 2,000 types of seizures but the most common are “absent” and “tonic-clonic”.
Absent seizures, previously known as petit mal, are characterized by a blank stare that usually lasts about 10 to 30 seconds. Tonic-clonic seizures are what people typically think of when they hear the word “seizure”.
“Epilepsy has been stigmatized since the dawn of time, demonized,” McKenzie said. “I think it has been because there is a lack of understanding and ignorance. When people lack knowledge, they become fearful.”
There is no perfect pill for treating epilepsy, she said, noting medication is the most common form of treatment.
“Unfortunately, with anti-seizure medication it’s not as simple as taking a tablet. It’s a fine cocktail of medication to get the dosage just right for the patient,” she said.
There is controversy over the use of medicinal marijuana to treat epilepsy even though it is a pre-approved use for the drug.
“There has been some controversy and dialogue about the cannabinoid extract, and there has been some success but to my knowledge there hasn’t been any formalized medical trials,” McKenzie said. “There is a trial, perhaps, beginning in the U.K. fairly soon and some families have seen success in Colorado.”
She says self-medication that it is still harmful to the body even though the patient may believe it is helping them.
If you see somebody having a seizure, it is okay to give him or her help until the proper medical officials arrive?
“For us, it’s a matter of letting them seize,” said Drew Eidt, an executive on the Campus Emergency Response Team (CERT).
“Making sure they are completely safe, the surroundings are safe, since we don’t want to injure them in any way. We don’t want to put anything in their mouths or hold them down in any way.”
Contrary to proper belief, Eidt said people should try to help until medical officials arrive.
“Absolutely. We definitely want help. Calling security to get in touch with us as well as calling EMS if they are aware that this is a seizure,” he said. “In most cases as well, most people having seizures are aware of it. The professor generally might be aware of it as well, just as a safety precaution for both yourself and the classmates so they know what’s going on.”
Classmates can also put pillows or blankets under a seizing person’s head to make sure they don’t hurt themselves.
Eidt added people shouldn’t panic if they see somebody having a seizure.