[Susan Hanna]

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Did you know that 42 Canadians will learn today that they have epilepsy? Or that 300,000 Canadian now live with this neurological disorder?

It’s true, yet the stigma surrounding epilepsy means that many people don’t talk about it. March is Epilepsy Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “Break the Silence.”

“Historically, people with epilepsy used to be shunned, or worse,” says Ottawa Valley Family Health Team physician Dr. Graeme McKillop. “It can be a terrifying for those who suffer from it, and from those around them, because the disorder involves seizures that may come on with no warning.”

Epilepsy is caused by sudden, brief changes in how the brain works. These changes are called seizures, which can affect a person’s consciousness, movements or actions for a short time.

Seizures may be partial—restricted to a certain area of the brain—or general, involving the entire brain.

A simple partial seizure may involve unusual sensations, such as odours, visual abnormalities, sudden or restless movements or hearing or vision distortion. Consciousness is not affected.

Complex partial seizures involve loss of awareness. The person may appear dazed and confused, make random motions, and cannot recall the episode.

Generalized absence seizures involve a complete loss of awareness, and the sufferer may stare into space. These seizures often appear in children and disappear by adolescence.

Tonic-clonic seizures are generalized convulsions that occur in two stages. In the first stage, the person loses consciousness, falls and the body becomes rigid. In the second phase, the body extremities jerk and twitch.

Status epilepticus describes recurring seizures with no return to consciousness in between.

“Partial seizures are the most common,” says Dr. McKillop.

Epileptic seizures may be caused by a brain injury, such as trauma, stroke, infection or brain tumour. In 50 per cent to 60 per cent of cases, the cause is unclear.

Tools used to diagnose epilepsy include blood tests, lumbar puncture (spinal tap), electroencephalography (EEG) or brain imaging such as MRI or CT scans.

Treatment for epilepsy caused by stroke, tumour or a permanent brain injury often includes anti-seizure medication. If medication does not work, surgery can be an option.

“The array of treatment options for seizures is expanding all the time,” says Dr. McKillop. “Treatments are becoming more successful, and, in some cases, eliminate the seizures altogether.”

If you or a loved one suffer a seizure of any kind, seek medical attention.

“In the case of a first seizure, go to the Emergency Department, because medical professionals will want to run tests to determine the cause,” advises Dr. McKillop.

“Given the advancements in treatment, there is no reason to avoid seeking care.”