Yesterday was Epilepsy Awareness Day, a chance for those with epilepsy around the world to come together (virtually on this occasion) to increase the public’s knowledge of the neurological condition which affects nearly 50 million people worldwide.

Whilst the Purple may not have been on show as publicly or in the office as in ordinary times, we at Freeths are still keen to raise awareness and do our part however we can.

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition which affects the brain that can cause seizures, but is usually only diagnosed if a doctor thinks there is a high chance that someone will have more in the future. It can start at any age, and for some people it lasts only a short while, whereas others may suffer from it as a lifelong condition.

Seizures are caused by sudden bursts of electrical activity within the brain, which can disrupt ordinary electrical signals and cause someone to experience a variety of symptoms. Not all seizures are the same, with tonic-clonic seizures resulting in a loss of consciousness and whole-body shaking, while focal seizures can distort the sufferer’s awareness of their surroundings and change their mood, or cause shaking of one part of the body. Absence seizures may be very short, with only a brief loss and return of consciousness. There are several other kinds, and seizures can occur while awake or asleep.

What kind of seizure a person suffers from depends on what part of the brain is affected and how far the activity spreads. Most people with epilepsy do not have tonic-clonic seizures, which are those most commonly associated with the condition by the public. Some seizures may be provoked, with anything from low blood sugar to fever being the cause, though unprovoked seizures can also happen with no obvious cause. The kinds of seizure that someone has and what causes them depends on the person, with 600,000 people in the UK being affected.

Unfortunately, epilepsy can lead to problems in daily life. Seizures can cause people to suffer from injuries as a result of falling or unexpected muscle movements, particularly when in riskier situations such as being around heights, water, hard surfaces, sharp edges or heat and power sources. These might be in inside or outside the home. Traffic also presents a risk. In a very small number of cases, seizures can result in death.

Seizures can also lead to memory loss, which may happen before, during or after the fit, and sadly medication may exacerbate memory issues as well as the depression, anxiety or stress which sufferers can develop as a result of having their life disrupted by the condition. Fatigue and disrupted sleep are also more likely, and the person may also lose their driving licence if the DVLA deem their condition poses a risk whilst driving. This can impact adversely on home and work life.

Fortunately, the majority of people with epilepsy are able to live a happy and fulfilling life. The main treatment is anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs), which are used to lower the chances of further seizures happening by adjusting the levels of chemicals within the brain. Surgery may also be performed to remove a small area of the brain that causes seizures if AEDs prove ineffective and the area can be removed without causing serious problems. Where this isn’t possible, small devices can be placed in the chest to stimulate the vagus nerve, or can even be connected to wires running directly into the brain – both of these change the electrical signals in the brain. There are also high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets which can assist, but these must be managed by a doctor and a dietician working together due to the potential side-effects.

Advocacy group Epilepsy Action have advice and resources to raise awareness, and on staying safe and managing your life with epilepsy. There are also available alarms designed to detect seizures and ID jewellery and cards which can warn medical staff, as well as protective headgear and safety pillows which have small holes that allow breathing when face down.

What causes epilepsy?

Often doctors won’t be able to give a reason for its onset, though it’s thought that there may be genetic reasons in many cases. However, the development of epilepsy has been specifically associated with acquired brain injury including head injuries, brain tumours, strokes, brain infections (such as meningitis) and oxygen deprivation during birth.

Sadly, epilepsy can also result from clinical negligence. This may occur as a direct result of mistakes by medical staff leading to the development of epilepsy or as a secondary condition alongside another injury.

Delays in the diagnosis of epilepsy or misdiagnosis can lead to missed opportunities and cause patients to suffer significant additional problems.

Issues may also arise where doctors fail to inform patients of their increased risk in daily life, resulting in them being fined by the DVLA for not informing them, or being hurt or causing preventable injury to others.

Epilepsy may also be diagnosed incorrectly. This can lead to the loss of a driving licence and/or otherwise significantly impacting on the patient’s livelihood, and also delay or prevent diagnosis and treatment of another condition with potentially serious consequences. 

If you or a loved one suffer from epilepsy or from another injury that may have been the result or substandard medical treatment, please feel free to contact a member of our team for a free, informal discussion on 01865 781 000 for a free initial discussion, or email catherine.bell@freeths.co.uk

Nationally, the Freeths Clinical Negligence Department is headed by:

Carolyn Lowe, Partner (Oxford/Milton Keynes/London) on 0186 578 1019, carolyn.lowe@freeths.co.uk

Karen Reynolds, Partner (Derby/Stoke on Trent/Birmingham) on 0845 272 5677, karen.reynolds@freeths.co.uk

Jane Williams, Partner (Leicester/Nottingham) on 0845 272 5724, jane.williams@freeths.co.uk