Every February 12, the world commemorates International Epilepsy Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about this neurological condition that affects millions of people around the world. This initiative - created by the International Office of Epilepsy (OIE) and the International League Against Epilepsy (Ilae) - seeks to eliminate the stigma associated with epilepsy, educate society and encourage support for those living with this condition.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 50 million people suffer from epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases worldwide.
What is epilepsy and how does it affect people?
Epilepsy symptoms can vary widely, from brief periods of absence to more intense seizures. The symptoms diversity highlights the complexity of this condition.
The convulsive episodes that characterize the disease result from excessive electrical discharges in a group of brain cells, which can occur in various regions of the brain. These episodes range from brief lapses of attention or muscle spasms to more severe and prolonged seizures. The frequency of attacks can also range, from less than one a year to several a day.
It is important to note that experiencing a seizure does not necessarily mean suffering from epilepsy. Up to 10% of people worldwide experience at least one seizure in their lifetime. Epilepsy is specifically defined as the presence of two or more unprovoked seizures. And although the causes of the disease are varied or unknown, in approximately 50% of cases it is important to understand that sporadic seizure episodes do not always indicate the presence of epilepsy.
Some of the known causes of epilepsy are:
- Brain damage from prenatal and perinatal causes (loss of oxygen or trauma during childbirth, low birth weight)
- Congenital anomalies or genetic conditions associated with brain malformations
- Serious head injuries; Cerebrovascular accident (stroke) that restricts the amount of oxygen reaching the brain
- Brain infections such as meningitis, encephalitis or neurocysticercosis
- Brain tumors
Epilepsy treatment usually involves medication that helps control seizures. In more complex cases, surgery or implantable medical devices may be considered as options.
In recent years, new techniques have become available such as the use of robotic surgery in laser ablation therapy, prolonged monitoring of seizures for months or deep brain stimulation, among other procedures. In coming years, great advances are expected in the neuroimaging diagnosis of cortical dysplasias and other pathologies that cause epilepsy, thanks to the resonance technique. The implementation of chronic electrodes and the development of 'closed loop' monitoring systems, together with analysis using Big Data, will allow crises to be identified at their beginning.
And one of the future objectives of scientific advances is to find genes that cause complex epileptic conditions, often refractory to conventional treatments. Finding these responsible genes would help identify what specific and personalized treatment each epileptic patient requires.
How to help someone in case of an epileptic seizure:
- Stay calm and remember that most epileptic seizures are short-lived and do not usually represent a long-term danger.
- Protect the person: help them lie down on the ground to avoid injuries from falls. Place something soft under the head, such as a jacket or pillow, to prevent head injuries.
- Remove dangerous objects: Remove any nearby objects that could cause harm during the seizure.
- Do not restrain the person during the seizure: Once it has started, it is practically impossible to stop an epileptic seizure, reports the Swiss League. And it warns that whoever assists a person who is suffering an epileptic seizure should not try to stop them by shouting, moving them, shaking them or making them smell strong perfumes.
- Position the person on their side: After the seizure has stopped, place the person on their side to facilitate breathing: stay with them until they fully regain consciousness.
- Observe the duration: If the seizure lasts more than five minutes or if multiple seizures occur without the person regaining consciousness in between, seek medical help immediately.
This day is to raise awareness about the disease and understand that even in these times, many affected people face stigmatization and discrimination due to a lack of general knowledge about the condition. International Epilepsy Day seeks to change perceptions and build an inclusive support network.