Epilepsy has always been seen as a mysterious condition which affects around 65 million people worldwide and although 1 in 26 will develop epilepsy in their lifetime, sufferers continue to experience prejudice and discrimination, despite the fact that it is not classified as a mental illness. It is a common neurological disorder that affects the central nervous system, causing seizures.
The Greek philosopher Hippocrates (460–377 BC) was the first person to recognise that epilepsy starts in the brain, indeed, the term Epilepsy is derived from the Greek verb epilambanein, meaning ‘to be seized or overwhelmed by surprise.’ However, it was often explained away as the sacred disease of someone who was ‘chosen’ or in some cases, ‘possessed’ as observers struggled to make sense of the violent convulsions witnessed in some types of seizures.
In the 18th Century, epilepsy was believed to be infectious, and up until the 1970’s laws existed which banned people with the condition from marrying. In the USA, it was perfectly legal to deny people with seizures entry to restaurants, theatres or public spaces. Such discrimination was evident in the employment and legal restrictions surrounding seizures, showing the damage such misconceptions did to the daily lives of epileptics.
It wasn’t until the early 19th Century that solid research on epilepsy was finally undertaken by English neurologist John Hughlings Jackson and attitudes surrounding the condition began to change and the fear and ignorance began to dissipate.
Although it is still not fully understood, an epileptic seizure is known to be triggered by illness or injury, including stress, flashing lights, high fever, head trauma, low blood sugar and alcohol or drug withdrawal. A seizure is described as a sudden rush of electrical activity in the brain.
A diagnosis of epilepsy will be made after having two or more unprovoked seizures which can be either generalized, ie; affecting the whole brain, while focal or partial seizures affect only one part of the brain. Mostly, the disorder will be managed with medications such as AEDs (anti-epileptic drugs) which control seizures in 7 out of 10 people, and other strategies such as avoiding known triggers. In severe cases a temporal lobectomy may be necessary to reduce the risk of brain damage.
Epilepsy often develops in childhood or old age but can appear spontaneously at any point in a person’s life. Occasionally, a child will outgrow the disorder while in others, it remains throughout their lifetime.
There are, however, many sufferers of epilepsy throughout history who have succeeded in their careers in spite of their condition. Vincent van Gogh, painter, Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the USA, actor Danny Glover, and singer-songwriters Neil Young and Prince to name but a few. It is not a disorder that should unduly disrupt daily life any more than is necessary if a few straightforward safety measures are put into place and medication is taken regularly, if required.
‘Parents learn a lot from their children about coping with life.’
As Epilepsy is a disability, children can be eligible for Special Educational Needs.
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