Epilepsy: Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions related to epilepsy.

Q: Is epilepsy a mental illness?

A: Epilepsy is not a form of mental illness and it does not cause mental illness.

Q: Is epilepsy a sign of reduced intelligence?

A: Epilepsy is not an indicator of intelligence. Epilepsy affects people of average intelligence as well as those above and below average. Some people with mental retardation may have epilepsy, but few with epilepsy are mentally retarded. Epilepsy may also accompany other neurological or developmental disorders, but this does not mean that everyone with epilepsy also has another type of brain dysfunction. More than a few people known for their intelligence have had epilepsy, most notably Julius Caesar and Napoleon, Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Socrates and Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and creator of the Nobel Prize.

Q: I’ve heard that you should put a wallet or something soft in the mouth of someone having a seizure. Is this true?

A: No. You should not put anything in the mouth of someone who is having a seizure. Nor should you try to hold the person down or try to stop the jerking or shaking. Seizures usually last about 2 to 3 minutes. If you witness a seizure that is lasting for a longer period of time, or if the person having the seizure is pregnant or has diabetes, you should seek emergency attention. Otherwise, just stay close to the person having the seizure and keep away sharp objects or other items that might be harmful. Try to roll the person onto his or her side. The seizure will stop.

Q: Is it true that people with epilepsy aren’t allowed to drive?

A: Generally, people who have epilepsy but who have been seizure-free for 12 months or more should be able to drive. Some states issue restrictive licenses that limit the times of day and distance that people with epilepsy may legally drive.

Q: Is it true that epilepsy is caused by vaccinations that have gone wrong?

A: In a few rare cases, high fever after DTP (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) vaccination has triggered febrile seizures in children. These seizures have been temporary and without serious consequence.

Q: Can flickering lights, television, or computer screens trigger an epileptic seizure?

A: Yes. Various stimuli can trigger seizure, including those mentioned. Stress, headache, and lack of sleep can also trigger seizures. Seizures can also occur with no clearly identifiable cause or reason.

Q: Can people with epilepsy hold a job?

A: By law in the United States, people with epilepsy and other handicaps cannot be denied employment because of their seizures. However, epilepsy varies greatly in severity, and people with more severe types may find it difficult to work or attend school. About 75% of adults with epilepsy are employed.

Q: Do relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation, help stop seizures?

A: Stress is sometimes a trigger for seizures and stress reduction techniques should be beneficial. Although relaxation techniques don’t stop seizures, some people have found that they reduce their severity. However, deep breathing has been reported as a trigger for some people. Adequate and restful sleep is very important for people who have epilepsy.

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