What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder of the central nervous system, specifically of the brain . It is characterized by the tendency to have recurrent seizures.

A person would be diagnosed with epilepsy if they have:

  • at least two unprovoked (or reflex) seizures or
  • one unprovoked (or reflex) seizure and are very likely to have another or
  • a diagnosed of an epilepsy syndrome.

In 2014 The International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) classified epilepsy as a disease, instead of a disorder, to better convey that epilepsy is a serious medical condition.

Almost 260,000 Canadians have epilepsy.

It is expected that about 260,000 Canadians have epilepsy according to an epilepsy prevalence estimate of 7.46 [1] per every 1,000 population [2]. This prevalence is based on systematic review and meta-analysis of international studies published from 1985 to 2011.

[1] “Scope (Prevalence And Incidence) Of Neurological Conditions”. Mapping Connections: An Understanding Of Neurological Conditions In Canada. 2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2016. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/cd-mc/mc-ec/section-3-eng.php

[2] Statistics Canada. 2017. Canada [Country] and Canada [Country] (table). Census Profile. 2016 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-X2016001. Ottawa. Released February 8, 2017.
http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E (accessed February 8, 2017).

Epilepsy is highly treatable

70% of people with epilepsy can gain seizure freedom with medication alone.

30% of people have drug-resistant epilepsy. There are additional treatments for people with drug-resistant epilepsy that can improve seizure control or stop seizures altogether.

A person has drug-resistant epilepsy if they have not achieved seizure freedom with adequate trials of two antiseizure medications [3]. There are a variety of treatment options for drug-resistant seizures including surgery [4], medically-managed diet therapy, and nerve stimulation. Treatment options for drug-resistant epilepsy should be evaluated at a comprehensive epilepsy program.

[3] Kwan P et al. (2010) Definition of drug resistant epilepsy: consensus proposal by the ad hoc Task Force of the ILAE Commission on Therapeutic Strategies. Epilepsia 51:1069-1077.

[4] Wiebe S et al. (2001) A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Surgery for Temporal-Lobe Epilepsy. N Engl J Med 345:311-381.

Epilepsy is more than just seizures

A national survey conducted in 2012, The Impact of Epilepsy on Canadians, asked respondents to identify the daily challenges of living with epilepsy beyond the seizures themselves. The top three challenges identified were lack of independence including not being able to drive (identified by 56% of respondents), impact on social life (38%), and stigma, discrimination and lack of awareness (38%). Maintaining employment (31%), maintaining relationships (25%), and financial strain due to cost of medications (24%) were not far behind.

These results demonstrate how epilepsy and seizures can make an impact on everyday life well beyond medical concerns.

People of all ages live with epilepsy

Epilepsy does not discriminate and can begin at any time during a person’s life.

According to data collected from the Canadian Community Health Survey in 2010/2011 about 14.6% of Canadians with epilepsy are 0-17 years old, 72.8% are 18-64 years old, and 12.6% are 65 year old and over [5].

[5] Statistics Canada. Table  105-1300 –  Neurological conditions, by age group and sex, household population aged 0 and over, 2010/2011,  CANSIM (database). (accessed: Oct 21, 2016) http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a26?lang=eng&id=1051300

What is a seizure?

A seizure is a sudden burst of electrical activity in the brain, which causes a temporary disturbance in the way brain cells communicate with each other.  The kind of seizure a person has depends on which part and how much of the brain is affected by the electrical disturbance that produces the seizure.  A seizure may take many different forms, including a blank stare, uncontrolled movements, altered awareness, odd sensations, or convulsions.  Seizures are typically brief and can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.

About 1 in 10 people will have a seizure in their lifetime.

There are many potential reasons why someone could have a seizure. Some seizures are a symptom of an acute condition, such as an illness or alcohol-withdrawal. Some people will have an isolated seizure for no apparent reason and never have another one.

A single seizure is not necessarily epilepsy.

What do I do if I see someone have a seizure?


Most often, a seizure will run its course and end naturally within a few minutes.


Call 911 if:

  • the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes
  • the seizure repeats without full recovery between seizures
  • the person is pregnant or has diabetes
  • the person is injured from the seizure
  • the seizure occurs in water
  • you are not sure if the person has epilepsy


  • Move sharp objects away.
  • If the person falls to the ground, roll them on their side when it is safe to do so.
  • Place something soft under their head.
  • If the person wanders during their seizure, stay by their side and gently steer them away from danger.
  • When the seizure ends, provide reassurance and stay with the person if they are confused.