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In Australia, around 250,000 people are currently diagnosed with epilepsy – that’s over 1 per cent of the population so chances are most people know someone with the condition.

While epilepsy is more common than Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, MS and muscular dystrophy combined, it is widely misunderstood. For example, the majority of people think seizures are convulsive, but epilepsy can take many forms and affect people very differently.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder and seizures are caused by a disruption of the electrical activity in the brain.

Up to 70% of people with epilepsy become seizure free with medication, however, this means 30% do not gain full seizure control.

Epilepsy is not necessarily lifelong. Some epilepsies are age related and seizures stop by a certain age.

Although some lifestyle changes are necessary, many people with epilepsy are able to lead full and productive lives.

And it is certainly no barrier to achievement – Socrates, Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven are all thought to have had epilepsy. There are also some contemporary well-known figures who speak openly about their epilepsy including actors Hugo Weaving and Danny Glover, singers Neil Young and Susan Boyle, and rugby league legend Wally Lewis.

Epilepsy – A Snapshot

What is epilepsy?: Epilepsy is disease of the brain characterised by the tendency to have spontaneous, recurrent seizures. It is the fourth most common brain disorder after migraine, stroke and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Who does it affect?: Although it is more likely to be diagnosed in childhood or senior years, it can be diagnosed at any age. It affects people of any intelligence, gender, or race.

What causes it?:  Epilepsy can sometimes be caused by head trauma, stroke, infectious disease of the brain, or abnormalities of the brain from birth. Genetics also play a role in some people. About half of the people with epilepsy never know the cause of their epilepsy.

What is a seizure?: A seizure is a temporary disruption of the electrical activity in the brain. Not all seizures involve convulsions. There are many different types of seizures that present in many ways including changes to sensation, awareness, behaviour or movement. Not all seizures are diagnosed as epilepsy.

How is it treated?: The first choice of treatment is medication. Up to 70% of people become seizure free when taking medication. Other treatment options include surgery; Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS); the Ketogenic Diet or Modified Atkins Diet; and more recently Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). Education and positive lifestyle changes are also important.

Can certain triggers set off a seizure?: Sometimes specific events or circumstances can increase the risk of having a seizure. These are usually called seizure triggers. Recognising these triggers can help to reduce or even avoid seizures. Some known triggers include lack of sleep, missed medication, fatigue, physical or emotional stress, hormonal changes and illness.

What’s the best way to help someone having a tonic clonic (convulsive) seizure?

1. Stay with the person
2. Time the seizure
3. Keep them safe. Protect from injury especially the head
4. Roll into recovery position after the seizure stops (or immediately if food/fluid/vomit is in mouth)
5. Observe and monitor their breathing
6. Gently reassure until recovered
7. Call an ambulance if there is an injury; if the seizure lasts for longer than five minutes; or if after the seizure ends the person is having breathing difficulties or is non-responsive.

First Aid for Seizures