Dispelling common myths about epilepsy

Emily Richter. 11/20/2020

Despite the fact that many people have heard of it before, epilepsy is one of the most misunderstood neurological disorders. (CDC)

Epilepsy. Everyone has heard of it, but few have a complete understanding of what this neurological disorder entails. November is Epilepsy Awareness Month, so let’s examine and dispel some of the most common myths about the brain disorder that shows itself mainly through seizures.

Myth #1: Very few people have epilepsy.
The Truth: The Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes that there are 3.4 million people in the United States currently living with an epilepsy diagnosis. This is about 1.2% of the population of the United States and is equivalent to the population of Uruguay. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, more than 65 million people worldwide lived with epilepsy as of 2014, and that number continues to grow as hundreds of thousands of people are diagnosed each year.

Myth #2: There is only one type of epilepsy.
The Truth: The Epilepsy Foundation currently recognizes 26 different types of epilepsy. Some types are more severe than others, and many types of epilepsy that appear in children are temporary. The International League Against Epilepsy reclassifies types of epilepsy almost every year, so the number of recognized epilepsy types changes often.

Myth #3: All seizures are the same.
The Truth: According to the Epilepsy Foundation, there are dozens of different types of seizures. They can be classified into two categories: generalized onset seizures and focal onset seizures. Generalized onset seizures affect both halves of the brain, while focal onset seizures only affect one. When most people think of seizures, they think of generalized onset tonic-clonic seizures. These are the types of seizures that usually involve shaking and muscle spasms. However, some seizures involve completely different symptoms. Some focal seizures result in a complete loss of movement and awareness, and no muscle spasms are involved.

Myth #4: Seizures are always a sign of epilepsy.
The Truth: Although many seizures do happen because of epilepsy, not all seizures are caused by epilepsy. Seizures can sometimes be a sign of a brain tumor, stroke or nutrition deficiency. Seizures can also be a side effect of many medications. Anyone who has experienced a seizure should seek medical advice to find out why the seizure happened and how future seizures could be avoided.

Myth #5: Biological children of parents with epilepsy will have epilepsy as well.
The Truth: Epilepsy can either be genetically inherited or caused by a form of brain trauma. According to the Cleveland Clinic, genetically inherited epilepsy “usually involves a combination of multiple gene defects”. The chance of a child inheriting all of these gene defects is extremely low. People controlling epilepsy with medication usually have to talk to a doctor or specialist before having their own biological children, not because of the possibility of their child inheriting epilepsy but because epilepsy medications often increase the risk of birth defects.

Myth #6: People with epilepsy will have a seizure if exposed to flashing lights.
The Truth: Seizures can be triggered by many different things. For some people with epilepsy, flashing lights really do trigger seizures. For others, lack of sleep, hyperventilation or many other internal or external factors can trigger a seizure. People with epilepsy have to know what triggers their seizures in order to prevent themselves from having a seizure.

Myth #7: Epilepsy is a mental disability.
The Truth: Epilepsy is a neurological disorder, but because it causes seizures, it is often classified as a physical disorder or disability. Different countries and different states choose to classify epilepsy differently. In the United States, individuals with epilepsy are classified as disabled and protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mostly serves to protect them from discrimination in the workplace. The United States military does not have to follow the rules outlined in the ADA, so individuals with epilepsy cannot serve the United States in the armed forces. Epilepsy can also be a major problem when it comes to healthcare. Many independent healthcare providers will charge people with epilepsy more money for their coverage because people with epilepsy often have higher medical costs due to expensive treatment and the constant doctor and neurologist visits. In specific cases, people with epilepsy can collect government-issued disability checks to help with their medical costs, though not all epilepsy patients qualify for these programs.

Myth #8: Epilepsy cannot be controlled.
The Truth: Epilepsy can often be effectively controlled with medication or brain surgery. Sometimes these methods do not completely eradicate epilepsy, but they often suppress it well. Many epilepsy medications for severe forms of epilepsy have serious side-effects, but unlike severe epilepsy, these side-effects can be managed by changes in lifestyle. Epilepsy medications for less-severe forms of epilepsy can have serious side-effects, but it is less common. Brain surgery, which is commonly used on patients who develop epilepsy as a result of brain trauma, can sometimes be effective for certain types of epilepsy. New medications and surgeries for epilepsy are being discovered and tested every day. Although many people have epilepsy, there was minimal research on the condition until the late twentieth century.

Cover Photo: (Cleveland Clinic)

Emily Richter
Emily is a junior from Maria Carrillo High School in Sonoma County. She loves chemistry and the environmental sciences and plans to be an environmental chemist when she gets older. Through InterSTEM, she hopes to combine her experience in writing with her interest in STEM in order to help others enjoy and understand STEM. In her free time, she likes playing the flute, and baking and cooking.