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Epilepsy 101

Experts answer 7 frequently asked questions about epilepsy.

What do I do if my friend has a seizure? continued...

First, gently bring the person to the ground and put something under the head so he or she doesn't hit the floor, French explains. Then turn the person over on the left side -- a better position for easier breathing and improved circulation. Turn him or her head slightly down so saliva won't go into the lungs -- and absolutely do not put anything in the person's mouth. The seizure should end in one or two minutes, maybe even less.

When the person regains consciousness, he or she will be confused, so stay with the person until he or she is back to the person's normal self. It's a good idea for those with epilepsy to wear a medical bracelet. If he or she has a seizure and no one is around, the bracelet will tell others what's happening so they can respond appropriately.

Can a seizure be life-threatening?

Yes, but very rarely. "Status epilepticus is when a seizure lasts longer than a few minutes, which can lead to brain injury and even death," says French. So, if a seizure hits the three-minute mark, call 911 immediately.

Looking at seizures in another way, they can be life-threatening, especially for children who are not well supervised in certain situations. For instance, never leave a child who has had a seizure alone in the bathtub, explains Olson.

How is epilepsy treated?

The most common way to treat epilepsy is with medication. Specific drugs are prescribed depending on the type of epilepsy or seizure a person has. When medication doesn't work, surgery is another treatment option. In some cases, a surgeon can remove the area of the brain producing seizures or can interrupt the nerve pathways that signal seizures. For children, a very strict meal plan called the ketogenic diet may reduce seizures.

If a patient doesn't respond to medication and surgery is not an option, vagus nerve stimulation can help prevent seizures. It works through a battery implant in the chest that delivers small pulses of electrical energy into the brain via the vagus nerve in the neck. The downside: It doesn't work for everyone, and it is not approved by the FDA for kids younger than age 12.

Any new treatments on the horizon?

"We have a lot of hope that some of the brain-stimulation technologies currently in development will bear fruit," says Olson. The goal of brain stimulation is to detect and interrupt seizures before they begin, through an implanted device in the brain. New medications are also in clinical trials, such as nasal sprays with antiseizure drugs that could be used immediately when a seizure starts to help stop its progression. 

Originally published in the March/April 2008 issue ofWebMD the Magazine.

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Reviewed on December 06, 2011

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