Health & Science

Epilepsy, A Silent Public Health Burden

Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disease, after migraine, stroke, and Alzheimer's. And yet public understanding of epilepsy lags far behind those diseases, according to a new Institute of Medicine report. What can be done to lessen the stigma faced by those who have seizures?

Dr. Michael Newmark treats patients with epilepsy at the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. He says most people know about the classic seizure, when a person loses consciousness and falls down.

But he says seizures can involve imaginary smells, hallucinations or just momentary confusion.

“What causes this is an inappropriate electrical-chemical discharge in the brain. It has a beginning and an end. It usually lasts for a minute or two and then afterwards the patient slowly recovers.”

His patient Kaitlin Foster, for example, never lost consciousness. She would be wide awake while the right side of her body went into spasm.

“My right arm and leg would just tense up and start twitching. I was like ‘Why is it shaking?’ It was really hard for me to grasp.”

Foster is now 21. She grew up near Lake Conroe, and was teased at school.

“I went to school every day being afraid of I was going to have a seizure. What people would think and everything like that.”

Doctors diagnose epilepsy when a person has two or more seizures. Seizures can start after stroke, infection, or a traumatic brain injury. Often the cause is unknown.

About 2.2 million Americans have epilepsy. The good news is that about two-thirds of them can take drugs that control their seizures. But as the Institute of Medicine reported, many patients become isolated, depressed and unable to live independently.

Again, Dr. Newmark:

“People with uncontrolled seizures have memory problems, attention problems concentration issue so it’s hard for them to get education, they also are very depressed many times because it’s a bummer having seizures. They’re stigmatized, it’s hard for them to get dates, it just goes on and on and on.  And many times it’s hard for them to get jobs.”

Kaitlin Foster had a happy ending: after six surgeries on her brain, her seizures stopped more. That was more than two years ago. She’s now studying psychology at Blinn College.

“I’m always paranoid when crossing the street just like I used to be, of falling down and having a seizure in the street or someplace like that. But I’m like ‘Oh yeah, I’m seizure free now.’”

But other patients continue to suffer. Some are fired from jobs, and some have even been robbed while having a seizure.

The report calls for better treatment, more research and more education of the public. From The Epilepsy Foundation: What to do if someone has a seizure?


Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters and the Houston Press Club. Florian is a native of Germany. His studies...

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