While most law enforcement and EMS personnel do an outstanding job recognizing and handling individuals experiencing seizures, in limited cases they may respond with inappropriate force to behaviors associated with seizures, interpreting undirected, involuntary and unorganized movements as aggression. The results can be fatal for the person with epilepsy, especially when dangerous restraint practices are used.
Recognizing and Responding to Someone Having a Seizure
Emergency medical teams and law enforcement personnel can reduce the risk of injury and a tragic outcome by remembering these key points about epilepsy:
- When a report comes in about someone acting strangely or creating a disturbance, always consider the possibility that a seizure is taking place or has just occurred.
- Check for a medical identification card or bracelet indicating that the person has epilepsy.
- If family members or bystanders say that the person has epilepsy, assume that the observed behavior is seizure-related.
- Seizure activity in the brain may affect speech, consciousness and movement to such an extent that a person cannot respond or interact normally during the seizure or immediately afterwards.
- Seizure symptoms may in rare cases include running, spitting, shouting, screaming, flailing movements or abusive language. Remember that these actions are involuntary, not under conscious control.
- Confusion and disorientation may last for some time after a seizure ends, but will gradually improve.
- Actions during a seizure are undirected and not under conscious control. Arrests solely on the basis of seizure activity may be discriminatory.
- People who are in the midst of a seizure or who have just had one should not be forcibly restrained because such restraints may injure them. In addition, people in these circumstances may misinterpret the actions of medical personnel as an attack on them and they may react to protect themselves by forcibly resisting, placing themselves and medical personnel at risk for injury.
- People with epilepsy who are taken into custody for any reason should continue to get their medication. Failure to take medication on time could produce fatal rebound seizures.
- Placing someone who is having a seizure, or has just had a seizure, face down, in a choke hold and/or hog-tying them, can obstruct breathing and cause death.
- People with epilepsy who have a seizure while in custody should receive prompt medical attention.
- People with epilepsy are normal, law-abiding people with an episodic medical disability over which they have no control. They deserve to be treated with respect.
Training and Resources
The Epilepsy Foundation offers resources and training to help first responders better understand how to recognize and respond to someone having a seizure.
Training for First Responders is offered three ways:
- Where You Are: Accredited live, classroom-based training conducted by local Epilepsy Foundation affiliates. Find your local Epilepsy Foundation here.
- DVDs and training manuals for first responders are available in our online store.
The 60-minute “Epilepsy and Seizure Response for EMS” personnel training describes seizures associated with epilepsy and other causes, appropriate EMS responses and issues to consider concerning further medical care. Training resources include a trainer’s guide, participant’s guide and PowerPoint presentation (see Resources sidebar). Continuing education credits are available for this training.
The 45-minute “Epilepsy and Seizure Response for Law Enforcement” personnel training seeks to provide law enforcement officers with seizure recognition, correct responses to seizures and awareness of the needs of people with epilepsy who might be taken into police custody. This training includes a trainer’s guide as a resource (see Resources sidebar).