Last updated March 30, 2020 at 11:13 am
With people with epilepsy at least 15 times more likely to drown, we need to pay more attention to the risk of injuries during seizures, say doctors.
Why This Matters: Injuries from seizures are the hidden toll of epilepsy.
With around 1 in 10 Australians living with epilepsy getting injured during a seizure each year, Australian doctors have argued for more emphasis to be placed on the condition and its effects. With many of the injuries potentially life threatening, they’re now calling for people to keep an eye out for people with epilepsy and the potential ways they could injure themselves during a seizure.
In an article published in the journal MJA InSight, two Australian doctors have detailed how over a quarter of injuries sustained during a seizure are to the head, with a quarter of those requiring stitches. Other common injuries include those due to water immersion, driving, or burns, as well as fractures and dislocations.
In total, people with epilepsy are 15-to-19 times more likely to drown than the general population, say the doctors.
“One in three Australians living with epilepsy will sustain a seizure-related injury in their lifetime, more than 50 per cent of which will prove particularly dangerous to the head, or will occur at home in the bath or swimming pool,” says Kaitlyn Parratt, a neurologist from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital who authored the article.
Epilepsy surprisingly common
Epilepsy is surprisingly common, with 3-4 per cent of Australians developing the condition in their lifetime. Worldwide it is the fourth most common neurological disorder. Developing at any age, epilepsy is characterised by recurrent seizures caused by a temporary disruption of electrical activity in the brain.
However, epileptic seizures come in many different forms, which some people may not even recognise as a seizure. Absence seizures can appear as if the person is staring blankly, while other seizures include the sudden stiffening of muscles or, conversely, the sudden loss of muscle strength leading to a fall.
“It is vital we improve community understanding of the physical dangers faced by those experiencing epileptic seizures, and educate people on how to react in the event of a seizure, to help maximise patient safety,” says Parratt.
Research has found that 27 per cent of injuries are to the head, with more than 25 per cent involving immersion in water. Burns and injuries while driving were around half as common, while dental injuries and fractures each accounted for around 10 per cent of injuries.
Meanwhile, research has also found that about 80 per cent of patients have a pattern to their seizures, which can be daily, weekly, monthly, or even longer. Previously the timing of seizures was thought to be unpredictable, says St Vincent’s Hospital neurologist Wendyl D’Souza, who co-authored the article with Parratt.
“The ability to forecast when someone may be at high risk of seizures through wearable devices, for instance, may help to reduce uncertainty, and allow for the implementation of preventative strategies to minimise the risk of physical injury,” says D’Souza.
To help understand what to look for, Parratt and D’Souza are encouraging people to check out Look For Epilepsy, an awareness program around epilepsy and what people with the condition encounter.
Epilepsy consumes the life of its sufferers
One Australian with epilepsy is Amy, a 20 year-old cellist at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music.
While most of her seizures are absence seizures, causing her to stare into space for periods, she experienced a tonic-clonic seizure one day while at the gym. During the high-intensity training session, she lost consciousness and has a seizure of alternating stiffness and jerking.
The seizure caused her to fall off a treadmill and hit her head hard on the ground. She later learned that hyperventilation from over-exertion was one of her seizure triggers.
“Living with epilepsy is very challenging, both physically and mentally. The disease affects my memory and the seizures make me very tired,” says Amy.
“I love to run, snowboard and swim, but I’m always worried that having a seizure could cause me to fall, hit my head, or even drown.”
“If I’m crossing the road while having an absence seizure, I could literally freeze for up to 10 seconds and a car could hit me.”
Amy’s epilepsy is well controlled with medication, and she has been seizure free for 14 months.
“My friends see that I’m seizure free, and think my epilepsy has gone, and I’m fine now. What they often don’t realise however, is just how much of my life epilepsy continues to consume.”