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National Epilepsy Week: understanding different types of seizures

Posted: 28/05/2021

24 May to 30 May 2021 is National Epilepsy Week. National Epilepsy Week, together with Purple Day (which took place on 26 March this year), aims to raise awareness of epilepsy and the impact it has on the lives of those affected by it.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee, held on 28 April 2021, heard that only a third of people with epilepsy are in employment and those in work are paid on average 11.8% less than non-disabled people.

Perhaps more shockingly, the employment rates for people with epilepsy have actually fallen from 42% in 2008 to 34% in 2021. [1]

Frequent and unprovoked seizures are the main sign of epilepsy, but there are many misconceptions about how epilepsy affects those with the condition. Previous surveys undertaken by Epilepsy Action have shown that one in four employees in the UK would be weary of working with a colleague who has epilepsy and that the majority of UK employers would not know how to help a co-worker having a seizure.

Types of seizure

Seizures are caused by intense electrical activity in the brain. Depending on what area of the brain is involved, the affect of the seizure will be different.

Focal seizures – focal seizures start in one side of the brain and the individual can be aware of what is happening around them (focal aware seizure) or their awareness can be impacted (focal impaired awareness seizure). The range of symptoms is varied and depends on which areas of the brain are affected.

Tonic-clonic seizures (grand-mal seizures) – these are the seizures that most people associate with epilepsy. They start in both sides of the brain and there are two phases to the seizure; the first involves a loss of consciousness and all of the person’s muscles stiffening, which often causes those having a tonic-clonic seizure to fall to the floor. The second phase manifests in convulsive shaking or jerking movements. After a tonic-clonic seizure, it can take a few hours or even a few days before the individual feels ‘back to normal’ and in the meantime they may feel sore, tired, unwell, confused and experience memory problems.

Tonic seizures – these seizures just involve the first phase of a tonic-clonic seizure. If the seizure starts in both sides of the brain, the person’s muscles tighten, their body stiffens and they may fall to the floor, their neck will extend and their eyes will open wide and roll upwards.

Atonic seizures – these occur where the muscles go limp as opposed to stiffen (as with a tonic seizure), although the person will often drop to the floor.

Absence seizures (petit-mal seizures) – absence seizures also affect both sides of the brain from the beginning of the seizure. During a typical absence seizure (atypical absence seizures are slightly different) an individual will be unconscious, usually for up to about ten seconds (although some people have a cluster of absence seizures one after another), but will not fall to the floor. People around someone having an absence seizure may not even be aware that the affected person has had one. Whilst most people can return to what they were doing after an absence seizure, those who experience a cluster of absence seizures can often feel confused afterwards.

Myoclonic seizures – these can affect both sides of the brain or just one side. They are usually too short to affect consciousness and involve sudden, short-lasting jerks that can affect some or all of the person’s body.

Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) help control seizures in around 70% of people, however treatments are still often not optimal. Epilepsy Research UK has recently announced funding for new research projects, including exploring gene therapy for treating drug-resistant epilepsy.

At Penningtons Manches Cooper, the clinical negligence and personal injury team understands that epilepsy and the associated seizures affect individuals in different ways and that understanding is at the heart of the team’s commitment to ensuring clients receive appropriate compensation where they have developed epilepsy as a result of a traumatic brain injury.

If you or a loved one have developed epilepsy (for example due a birth injury or traumatic brain injury) and are considering bringing a claim for compensation, a member of the specialist personal injury or clinical negligence teams can be available for an initial, no obligation discussion with you to assess your options.


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