Epilepsy Overview

Epilepsy is a condition that causes seizures as a result of sudden surges of electrical current in the brain. Epilepsy can present in people in various ways depending on the part of their brain affected by the condition. It often develops in childhood or old age and can last someone’s whole life, or improve gradually with age. About 1% of the UK population has epilepsy.

What are the signs and symptoms of epilepsy?

Typical symptoms of epilepsy include:

  • Shaking uncontrollably – this is called a ‘fit’
  • Stiffness in the limbs
  • Collapsing or fainting
  • Loss of awareness and staring into space
  • Unusual sensations in the stomach or tingling in the limbs
  • Strange tastes or smells

Not all seizures are the result of epilepsy and they can be isolated incidents, but someone’s first seizure, a series of consecutive seizures, or a single seizure lasting more than five minutes requires medical investigation.

How is epilepsy diagnosed and treated?

After a seizure, a GP will refer the person to a neurologist for tests, such as measuring the brain’s electrical impulses and looking at images of the brain. Epilepsy can be hard to diagnose because it shares symptoms with other conditions such as migraines and panic attacks. For this reason, the occurrence of multiple seizures is often necessary before an epilepsy diagnosis can be confirmed.

A video recording of a seizure, as well as notes on what the person was doing directly prior to the seizure, can help medical professionals in determining whether it is epilepsy.

Treatment can help a person with epilepsy manage their seizures and other symptoms of the condition.

Anti-epileptic drugs can help control seizures in 70% of people with epilepsy. They do not cure epilepsy but instead alter brain chemistry to reduce seizure frequency.

Surgery is sometimes an option if drugs fail to work and brain scans show that the affected part of the brain could be removed without an adverse impact on other functions.

There are a few ways to confirm what sort of reasonable adjustments should be made for an employee with epilepsy:

An employer must carry out a risk assessment to determine what their employee with epilepsy can and cannot do safely regarding work duties. The best way to do this is by asking questions such as:

  • How often do you have seizures and how long do they last?
  • What can you do, if anything, to reduce the likelihood of them happening?
  • When do they usually happen and are you aware that they are about to happen when they do?
  • Do you require any specific assistance or care during or after a seizure?
  • What other symptoms do you experience and how can they be managed in a work setting?

What reasonable adjustments are possible for employees with epilepsy?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with epilepsy if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has epilepsy. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of epilepsy:

  • Flexible working hours to accommodate recurrent seizures which tend to occur at specific times of day, for example, early in the morning.
  • Additional written instructions if the person’s epilepsy affects their memory and ability to recall verbal instructions.
  • Adjustments to shift patterns, or consistent working hours if changes to sleeping patterns can trigger seizures.
  • Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s epilepsy and can help ensure the employee feels comfortable at work
  • Flexibility in terms of work duties and tasks, for example, if the employee loses their driving license after a seizure and can no longer do community-based work.
  • Reduced or no responsibility involving equipment or caring for small children, which could be dangerous should the employee have a seizure at work.
  • Additional risk assessment and adjustments for night work that includes sleeping. 

Some people with epilepsy will not require any adjustments if their seizures can be completely managed with medication or if their seizures would not endanger them or anyone else should they occur at work.

Epilepsy Signposting

Epilepsy Action – charity working to improve access to epilepsy healthcare services and support to enable people to manage the condition as best as possible, as well as working to expand understanding of the condition among the public (0808 800 5050).

Epilepsy Society – charity promoting, research, education and awareness relating to epilepsy in the UK, as well as working to improve medical resources (01494 601 400).

Epilepsy Research UK – charity driving national research into epilepsy to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention at health policy and practice level (020 3096 7887).

Other Research Resources

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