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Quality of life still high for those living with epilepsy

Dr. James White of the Minnesota Epilepsy Group says epilepsy can occur at any age and that one in ten people will have a seizure in their lifetime. Photo by Margaret Ontl

Epilepsy has been in the news lately as a result of University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill.

Kill suffered a seizure towards the end of a Gophers' football game several weeks ago. He was hospitalized but returned to the field for the next game but continued to have seizures. According to news reports, he was hospitalized for evaluation and treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Kill is in remission from kidney cancer and has periodically experienced seizures since 2005.

From his Hudson office, Dr. James White of the Minnesota Epilepsy Group said Kill's high public profile will hopefully lead to more information and education about epilepsy and its treatment.

White said that what has happened to Kill is not uncommon among people who have epilepsy. Seizures can be controlled with medications and surgery and patients can be seizure-free for years and then have an experience like Coach Kill. Epilepsy is defined as the tendency to have recurrent seizures, two or more that are unprovoked.

According to White, one in ten people will experience one or more seizures during their lifetime and they can happen anytime beginning in utero right through old age. He describes a seizure as a kind of electrical storm in the brain that sends an abnormal charge of electricity causing the body to have a seizure.

There are multiple reasons these abnormal charges occur -- everything from head trauma to brain tumors and infections to strokes, Alzheimer's disease and dementia. They occur more often in young children and in older adults over the age of 60. Seizures can be triggered by sleep deprivation, dehydration (which has been mentioned in connection with Kill's seizure) and stress. White said there is also increasing evidence of that genetics play a role as well.

White said there are a range of responses the body has during a seizure. In mild cases, a person seems to be unresponsive, staring off into space. Sometimes muscles in the body stiffen causing a person to fall or collapse. In the more serious cases, muscles tense forcefully and jerk violently. In these severe reactions, people are at risk for injury from the fall or the jerking, sometimes resulting in things like separated shoulders or broken limbs. He said most seizures last less than 1-2 minutes. More severe seizures can last 4-5 minutes.

When a seizure occurs White said the most important thing is to ensure the safety of the person. Don't move a person during a seizure but be sure they are away from anything in the area that might cause additional injury.

The old concern about a seizure patient swallowing their tongue doesn't apply and it is never a good idea to put anything in the mouth of a patient during a seizure. White also said moving a person to their side while they are jerking during a seizure could result in further injury. "Instead, when the jerking ends, roll them over onto their side and call for assistance."

Epilepsy is diagnosed with neuropsychological testing. There are highly successful treatments for epilepsy. "Fifty percent of patients will be helped by the first seizure medicine they are prescribed. Overall, seizure medications control two thirds of all seizures experienced by patients. They can stop the seizures and put them into remission, sometimes for the rest of the patient's life," said White.

Surgical intervention is also an option generally reserved for those who don't respond to seizure medications. The first surgery to treat seizures was in the 1800s but it has become more common and safer in the last couple of decades.

White said there are risks and side effects with both treatments but for most patients one or the other can successfully stop their seizures.

White believes that with proper treatment and early intervention and support, people who have epilepsy can lead full and successful lives and realize their full potential.

"Coach Kill is an example of how much can be accomplished. He will be back and, like the vast majority of people we treat, he will continue to be able to do what he loves."

For more information about seizures and epilepsy go to or contact Dr. White at Minnesota Epilepsy Group Hudson Clinic, 1610 Maxwell Drive, (715) 377-1616.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

(715) 808-8604