Science

What Is Benign Idiopathic Seizure?

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Doctors say Chief Justice John Roberts has had a benign idiopathic seizure. Roberts had experienced a similar seizure in 1993. Just what is a benign idiopathic seizure and how commonly does it occur?

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Chief Justice John Roberts is resuming his vacation at his summer home in Maine today. He's back from the hospital after experiencing what his doctors called a benign idiopathic seizure.

NPR's Joanne Silberner tells us what this condition is and what seizures can mean for people who have them.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Benign means it's not a tumor that's the problem. Doctors have ruled that out. And idiopathic? That means of unknown cause. No one really knows what's causing the seizures. Nonetheless, such episodes are surprisingly common, says Dr. Elson So. He's a neurologist with the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. ELSON SO (Neurologist, Mayo Clinic): Eight to nine percent of the population in a lifespan of about 70 to 80 years may experience at least one seizure. About third of those may experience a recurrent or second seizure.

SILBERNER: Seizures can be dramatic, but some people don't even know they've had one. Most last from seconds to maybe a couple of minutes. Dr. So says people who've experienced a seizure should get to a doctor who will check for infections, fever, tumor, strokes or other conditions that can cause them. If you've had two unexplained seizures, doctors are ready to say you have epilepsy.

Dr. SO: The reason is because the chance of having a third seizure would come up to close to 80 percent, which some scientific studies had shown.

SILBERNER: Doctors will usually prescribe medication for most of those people. And that safely and effectively eliminates or at least minimizes the episodes.

Dr. SO: This condition is not expected to affect a person's general function or ability to work or enjoy life.

SILBERNER: He says seizures certainly don't harm the ability to think. Epilepsy experts recommend that if you see someone having a seizure, help him or her lie down and maybe put something soft under the head to protect it. There is no risk that they'll swallow their tongue - that's an old myth.

Former California Congressman Tony Coelho has firsthand experience with that. He has epilepsy.

Mr. TONY COELHO (Former California Congressman): My wife, one time, put her finger in my mouth and I bit it. She still has a scar from it. That was about 20 years ago.

SILBERNER: Coelho has had epilepsy since he was child, though his parents didn't tell him the diagnosis. As a young man in the early 1960s, he tried to join the priesthood. His application to the seminary was rejected because at the time, the Catholic Church wouldn't allow men with seizure conditions to become priests. Coelho says some gains have been made since then. But people who have seizures still face a lot of stigma.

Mr. COELHO: There's nothing contagious. There's nothing they're going to do to you. They're not possessed. It's just a matter - the motor functions of the body are going through some contractions and so forth. They are fine. Once they complete seizing - and we're not dangerous to anybody during that process.

SILBERNER: Coelho has been on anti-seizure medication for more than 40 years, but he still has occasional seizures. Afterwards, he's briefly tired and takes some nap. Then, he goes back to whatever he was doing, he says, like nothing ever happened.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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