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June 2007

Understanding Epilepsy

By: Caroline Tapp-McDougall

Socrates, Vincent Van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven, Marcel Proust, and Alfred Nobel all had epilepsy, yet it didnʼt stop them from making significant contributions during their lifetimes.

Today, epilepsy affects more than 300,000 Canadians. In many cases, it has little impact on a personʼs ability to be successful, enjoy life, and raise a family.

Contrary to what some believe, epilepsy is not a mental illness and it certainly doesnʼt affect a personʼs intelligence. Rather, itʼs a neurological condition that causes a sudden, brief, uncontrolled burst of electrical activity in the brain called a seizure. These seizures recur – sometimes frequently and sometimes rarely. Causes of epilepsy can include brain injury, stroke, brain tumour, or lesion. In the majority of cases, the cause is unknown.

There are more than 40 different types of seizures that can be classified by their characteristics. The three most common are simple partial, absence (formerly called petit mal), and tonic-clonic (formerly called grand mal). In simple partial seizures, the person experiences abnormal sensations or movements, but remains conscious. During a tonic-clonic seizure, the person temporarily loses consciousness, experiences severe muscles spasms and jerking, clenches their teeth, and sometimes vomits or loses bladder control.

Limited Education

Given a lack of public education, people with epilepsy may be stigmatized in the workplace. Coworkers and employers may feel uncomfortable or nervous around people with epilepsy and fear that they ʻcanʼt be trustedʼ to perform their work safely. After all, they may have a seizure at any moment. Employers have needlessly worried about productivity, absenteeism, liability, job performance, reaction of customers or co-workers, accommodation costs, and workplace safety.

The truth is that people with epilepsy can work in almost any occupation. And while an employer is legally bound to accommodate people with disabilities, these are inexpensive and easy-to-make. They include:

understanding epilepsyThe Pressure Of Disclosure

If an employer learns that an employee has epilepsy, they, with permission and inclusion of the individual, should take the time to educate all staff about what to expect if the person has a seizure. Taking this educational initiative brings respect, trust, and understanding to the workplace.

Epileptic seizures can be triggered by many things including stress, lack of sleep, hunger, flashing lights, or, in rare cases, repetitive sounds. Because stress lowers a personʼs seizure threshold, people with epilepsy should be supported and encouraged to establish effective stress management strategies and pay particular attention to other health issues such as headaches, high blood pressure, and insomnia which may lower their seizure threshold.

Seizures At Work

When someone experiences a seizure, make sure that he or she is not left alone. A designated co-worker or on-staff medical professional, if available, should remain with the person to monitor the situation and to provide reassurance. Any bystanders witnessing the seizure should be calmly told that a seizure is happening and that the situation is under control.

If an employee is having a tonic-clonic seizure, move sharp or dangerous objects out of the way and, if possible, loosen tight collars and clothing. Above all, let the seizure run its course. Nothing can shorten it and there is nothing you can do to relieve, reduce, or stop it. Slapping, shaking, or splashing cold water on the person is harmful and unnecessary. Most importantly, and contrary to the old-fashioned advice that most of us grew up with, do not push objects (such as your hand, a wallet, or a towel) between the personʼs teeth.

Employees who have epilepsy can be just as productive and committed as other workforce members. Smart employers can be proactive by educating employees and understanding as much as they can about the needs and abilities of people with epilepsy.

Caroline Tapp-McDougallCaroline Tapp-McDougall is the publisher of Solutions: Canadaʼs Family Guide to Home Health Care and Wellness and the author of The Complete Canadian Eldercare Guide.

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