The myths and facts of epilepsy

Though almost everyone recognises the name, epilepsy is often seriously misunderstood by the public. It’s a complex condition to describe and there are also many persistent myths surrounding it. Some misconceptions about epilepsy have existed for hundreds of years and remain known to this day.

In reality, these assumptions have little to say about what the disease is really like. Anyone who has been diagnosed, or who has otherwise known someone with epilepsy, should know the facts and share them to set the record straight.    


The biggest myths about epilepsy

In many ways, epilepsy has been a magnet for untrue claims and misjudged beliefs. Today, we understand and treat it much better than in the past, and most who are diagnosed go on to lead relatively normal and fulfilled lives. The following myths may demonstrate the public’s misunderstanding, but they do not reflect the true nature of the condition. 

  • People with epilepsy cannot handle heavy stress or labour – Nearly any job, even in the highest tiers of society, can accommodate someone with epilepsy. Unfortunately, many employers don’t provide enough support for people with epilepsy and other disabilities, which can make them nervous about potential risks and lawsuits. Most people with epilepsy perform as well at their job as they would otherwise. 

  • Epilepsy cannot be controlled – A vast majority of people with epilepsy find their seizures can be controlled with the right treatment. Medication is enough to control seizures in more than 70% of cases. For others, surgery or implantable devices may be an option depending on what part of the brain is affected. 

  • Epilepsy is contagious or will be inherited – There’s absolutely no chance of catching epilepsy from another person. It’s not a disease one catches, but rather the result of many possible causes related to the firing of neurons in the brain. For this reason, the risk of passing it on genetically is very low. With proper precautions, more than 90% of mothers with epilepsy give birth to healthy children.

  • Epilepsy is a mental illness – epilepsy is a broad term that applies to a wide range of seizure and epileptic disorders. Though they have often been associated with issues of trauma and head injury, these kinds of incidents only cover a fraction of all epileptic cases. While epilepsy itself is not a mental illness, it is often associated with mental illness, making it highly burdensome to live with.

  • When having a seizure, you may swallow your tongue – This is absolutely untrue. At worst, you may bite your tongue, but there is no actual evidence of a person swallowing their tongue during a seizure.

  • When someone has a seizure, you should place something in their mouth – You should never force anything into someone’s mouth during a seizure. It doesn’t help and it may lead to injury. Ideally, you should roll them onto one side and make sure they have plenty of space. If they show signs of distress for more than a few minutes, then seek medical assistance. 

  • Only children can get epilepsy – Certain varieties of epilepsy are more common in kids or the elderly, but it can develop at any age.

  • People with epilepsy cannot live normal lives – Often, people with epilepsy can live the lives they want as long as they’re cautious of their condition. If your seizures are difficult to control, you may need to avoid activities that could become dangerous when a seizure happens. For most, getting treatment should provide enough control for you to live as productive and fulfilled as ever. 

  • All seizures are convulsive — There are many different types of epilepsy, many of which do not cause any type of convulsions. E.g. absence epilepsy causes people to essentially switch off and become unresponsive for a moment. This can be mistaken for daydreaming, especially in children. 



Placing a finger in a mouth


Don’t let the myths rule your life

In the end, the facts prove that epilepsy is more complex and less horrifying than the myths would suggest. For those who’ve been diagnosed and those who love them, it’s unfortunate that these kinds of stories are still widely believed. It shows that public education about epilepsy is still critically important and that there’s much we can do to set the record straight.

Nearly 65 million people in the world have some form of epilepsy, which is more than cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis combined. There are good odds that almost everyone will know someone with epilepsy in their lifetime, which is why knowing the facts is so essential. 

People who know the truth have the power to raise awareness and let the world know the true facts about epilepsy. Most people with epilepsy are able to live life to the full and contribute enormously to society.

For support and to speak with others who understand what you’re going through, be sure to reach out to your local epilepsy foundation. See the following links for foundations in Australia through Epilepsy Australia or Epilepsy Action, the UK, and the US.