Epilepsy explained

Write Way to HealthToday (26 March) is Purple Day.

It’s an international awareness day for epilepsy, a condition that is suffered by around one per cent of the population. That’s about 65 million people worldwide, including 400,000 Australians.

Traditionally epilepsy has been a hidden condition due to stigma and discrimination, often caused by a misunderstanding of the condition. Purple Day is designed to increase awareness of epilepsy and to help break down barriers and common misconceptions about the condition.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a brain condition characterised by recurrent seizures. It is not a disease; it is not a psychological disorder and it is not contagious.

While one in 10 people will experience at least one seizure in their lifetime, epilepsy is defined by multiple seizures.

Who gets epilepsy?

Anyone can develop epilepsy, however onset occurs usually during childhood or in older people. Sometimes people who developed seizures as a child can outgrow them. There is an increased risk of epilepsy in the elderly due to strokes and ageing of the brain.

Seizures explained

Our brain consists of billions of nerve cells (neurons) that communicate through electrical and chemical signals. When a sudden excessive electrical discharge occurs, it can interrupt the normal activity of nerve cells and a seizure may occur.

Seizure can take many different forms but overall, they cause a change in function of behaviour. The location of the brain where the abnormal electrical discharge occurs will determine the form the seizure will take. Seizures usually last seconds to minutes and can be:

  • Blank stares
  • Muscle spasms
  • Uncontrolled movements
  • Altered awareness
  • Odd sensations
  • Convulsions

Seizures are classified according to their length, and the symptoms displayed during the seizure. It is important to classify the seizures as it helps determine the type of treatment required.

How is it diagnosed

Diagnosing epilepsy may be different for each patient. Doctors usually look at medical history, descriptions of what happens before, during and after the seizure. There are also a number of tests doctors use to diagnose, although not all patients will need all these tests. They include:

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) — a recording of the electrical activity of the brain via small electrodes attached to the scalp. This procedure is painless.
  • Video EEG telemetry — usually patients are monitored for 24 hours via an EEG and video, while in hospital
  • Computerised axial topography (CT scan) — an examination of the brain structure to identify causes of epilepsy (i.e. stroke or tumour, etc.).
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI Scan) — a test that provides life-like pictures of the brain structure.
  • Neuropsychology — this evaluation involves interviews and testing with a psychologist to determine if epilepsy has affected your cognitive, language and spatial skills.

How is epilepsy treated?

Most cases of epilepsy are treated with anti-epileptic drugs. While these medications do not cure the condition, they do help suppress and manage seizures. Every case of epilepsy must be treated individually. If drug treatment is not successful, some patients may need to undergo surgery.

How can you help?

The prime goal of Epilepsy Australia is for everyone to be seizure aware. That means knowing what to do if someone you know has a seizure. A downloadable poster on Seizure first aid is available here.

You can also help by donating to Epilepsy Australia at  or purchasing some of their merchandise at

And of course, don’t forget to wear purple for Purple Day and stand up for epilepsy.

Further information

Purple Day

Epilepsy Australia